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Deadly arms, simple tactics

Picture emerges of Fallujah fighters

By Anne Barnard
Globe Staff / November 16, 2004
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FALLUJAH, Iraq -- They carried surface-to-air missiles and armor-piercing bullets, but they wore plastic thong sandals and often died barefoot.

They were able to briefly rattle US troops in armored vehicles, staging bold ambushes from spider holes and trenches.

But yesterday morning, as US troops walked freely throughout city blocks that had been the scene of fierce clashes just days before, the rebels' fighting positions looked less like sophisticated fortifications than holes in the dirt, and the bodies decomposing in the dust looked like the small-boned frames of teenagers.

In Fallujah, US troops finally are getting an up-close look at what they say has been the nerve center of the insurgency in Iraq, and at the living and working quarters of fighters they are still struggling to identify and understand.

They found a fighting force with lethal weapons and simple methods that had taken over neighborhoods that now lie gutted.

A few hundred yards from where an ambush killed a US soldier Friday, a house was flanked by dug-in fighting positions, holes covered with corrugated metal. One was lined with a blanket decorated with palm trees and camels.

Behind the house, a land mine was barely visible in the yellow dust; in front of it lay two bodies, one ripped in half, probably by artillery.

At another house were materials for making roadside bombs: batteries, wires, and artillery shells with the explosives removed for use elsewhere. A sack of rocket-propelled grenades lay in the front hall, which led to a yard with a makeshift bunker under a ruined grape arbor. A bicycle with a bell and a red basket stood outside: a messaging system, the troops said.

In front, a man lay slumped on his right side, his head split open. A few yards away a heavy machine gun lay in the dust. The man could not have weighed more than 100 pounds.

He lay outside a half-built house ringed with trenches and strewn with weapons and bomb-making materials, along with half-eaten pomegranates and a lesson ripped from an English grammar textbook.

''They're all dead, or they're running really fast," Lieutenant Colonel Peter Newell, commander of the First Infantry Division's Task Force 2-2, said after dashing from house to house with his security detail as his men hunted down a sniper a few houses over. ''If they're here, they're in very deep holes and they're very lonely, with no food, no water, no friends."

Still, Newell acknowledged that fortifications and tunnels had allowed the fighters to stage a deadly ambush on his men a few hundred yards away. ''We pulled in here, the sun came up, and these guys all came out of their holes," he said.

Troops had reported finding a deep underground complex, complete with medicine stockpiles and facilities for physical training. But after bombing the site overnight, they said they could not find the entrance again to show reporters yesterday.

More typical were the types of defenses that insurgents could build anywhere -- shallow pits in the dirt covered with scrap metal or holes running under a wall out of the courtyard of a house.

In a home across the street was a box of ammunition, marked ''Jordan Armed Forces."

Many of the fighters are teenagers swept into the battle by religious and nationalist exhortations, US commanders say. The older, better-trained fighters and some of the foreigners fled the front lines, leaving the local Fallujah males to die on the barricades, Newell said.

Inside one house, two insurgents lay dead. One, a young man with a short beard, a camouflage T-shirt, and gray-green pants, was near a pickup that had been mounted with a 50-caliber machine gun and a steel plate to protect the gunner. Beside him, next to his broken gold-rimmed sunglasses and a can of bug repellent, was a rocket-propelled grenade -- a weapon that can take out a tank.

Some insurgents are wearing the flak vests and camouflage that was distributed to Iraqi National Guard members in Fallujah and later to the Fallujah Brigades -- the home-grown force that was put in power after the abortive Marine assault on the city in April, most of whose members eventually openly supported insurgents. Night vision goggles like the ones the Americans use had also been found in a house nearby.

''It definitely raises concern that they have these weapons," said Lieutenant Jeff Emery, 24, of Ramsey, N.J., whose men were securing the house. ''They can see us almost as well as in the day."

A second dead man, wearing khakis, sneakers, and a dark sweater, lay in another room. After tank fire killed his fighting partner, he hid until US troops charged in and shot him, said Sergeant Benjamin Richey, 28, of Waco, Texas.

''I found a grenade on him," Benjamin said.

Insurgents playing possum claimed the life of a US soldier late last week, when he was clearing a house and came upon fighters inside who had pretended to be asleep. The human rights group Amnesty International has condemned fighters for waving white flags and then attacking; it has also criticized the US military for not taking more precautions to avoid harming civilians.

In a few places, troops found larger bombs rigged by insurgents. One body was found with a homemade detonator attacked to two 144mm artillery shells buried near a road. Lieutenant Eric Gregory said his Bradley Fighting Vehicle had destroyed two 500-pound bombs that were stored at a mosque.

One of the most urgent questions -- on how many of the fighters are foreign -- has not been answered. Troops were told not to touch the bodies to look for identification until military intelligence officers arrive. Many bodies are decomposing in the streets.

Yusef Hami Fetka, 61, a Shi'ite Muslim from Baghdad, might not be expected to find compassion for Sunni insurgents who have claimed responsibility for many attacks, such as car bombs that have killed hundreds. Fetka, who is a translator for the Iraqi Intervention Forces, said he deplores religious fanatics and called Fallujans ''tribal" and ''uncivilized."

But after seeing so many fighters killed, he felt overwhelmed. Clutching the head of a yellow marigold, he began to cry.

''It is sad to see human beings being killed," he said.

Anne Barnard can be reached through the New York Times

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