IN THE STREETS
Urban Warfare Deals Harsh Challenge to Troops
By DEXTER FILKINS
Published: November 9, 2004
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FALLUJA, Iraq, Nov. 8 - The two marines were pinned down on a roof on
Monday, pressing themselves against a low, crumbling wall as insurgents
fired rocket-propelled grenades at them from a building near the middle
Hours before, they had clambered over a railroad embankment - a berm, to
the engineering-minded - and started their advance into this rebel-held
Commanders called in artillery fire on the building where the grenades
were emerging, their tails spitting and glowing like sparklers across
the sky. But the artillery only flattened the building next door to the
one occupied by the insurgents.
"This is crazy," one of the marines said. "Yeah," his buddy said, "and
we've only taken one house."
This is urban warfare, where the technological advantages of the
American military can be nullified, at least for a few terrifying hours,
by a few determined fighters in a warehouse or an abandoned home.
During the night, the insurgents fired off brilliant red and blue
flares, blinding the Americans' sensitive night-vision equipment, and
slipped quickly from house to house in hopes of confusing the artillery
For hours, they succeeded, pinning down perhaps 150 marines led by Capt.
Read Omohundro, a strapping graduate of Texas A&M who has a habit of
walking around upright during bursts of mortar and grenade fire while
everyone else is hugging an outcropping of concrete.
Even the captain concedes that this is nothing like a fight in the open
desert, where the Americans are always fated to win, quickly. "The
challenge is that the battlefield is three-dimensional," he said. "Not
only do you have to look in front of you and behind you, but also above
you and below you, even subterranean.''
This night would become a textbook illustration of those complexities.
Captain Omohundro's unit started rolling toward the berm in armored
personnel carriers from an encampment about a mile north about 7 p.m. He
was supposed to meet up there with another outfit, but it had gotten
Finally he found it, and his men started their part of the invasion by
firing a 200-yard cord containing 1,800 pounds of explosive southward
from the berm, toward downtown Falluja. The marines worried that their
way into the city had been mined. But when the charge exploded, it also
set off any mines in a narrow path around it.
That tactic worked, but when the marines climbed the berm in pitch
blackness and went over, they discovered rocky ground with rusty junk
littering the way - a typical railroad district on the edge of town.
They worked their way toward their first objectives, a small traffic
circle, and beyond that, the first buildings of the city.
But the marines were getting shelled even before they went over the berm.
The area exploded with sporadic gunfire, rocket-propelled grenade rounds
and mortars. The advance bogged down as spotters tried to locate pockets
of insurgents and wipe them out with the big guns.
For a time, this frightening urban battlefield became a pulsing
cacophony of strange and deadly sounds. The mosques in the city
broadcast calls to jihad through their speakers. F-18's fired 3,000
rounds a minute in bursts that sounded oddly like burps. AC-130 gunships
droned overhead, their big cannons going thunk, thunk as they found
Perhaps strangest of all, the American troops brought in their own "psyops"
trucks - for psychological operations - and blared sounds that created a
nightmarish duet with the mosques: old AC/DC songs, something that
sounded like a sonar ping, the cavalry charge.
Captain Omohundro did not like sitting still in this theater of doom,
and for good reason. "My biggest fear is staying in the same place for
too long," he said. "Then they'll pinpoint us and start firing."
Eventually the artillery found the house that had been spitting the
grenades and flattened that one, too. An AC-130 passed overhead but
decided that the threat had been annihilated along with the building.
Then the shooting started again, from some other window among the
cracked streets and twisted alleyways of Falluja.