FALLUJAH, Iraq -- An early morning search operation by US Marines erupted into what witnesses described as an intermittent, daylong firefight with Iraqi insurgents, the heaviest fighting since the Marines replaced Army troops this week as the occupation force in this restive town.
Iraqi medical workers here said 15 Iraqis were killed in the fighting; other sources put the Iraqi death toll at five to seven. Doctors counted 25 Iraqi wounded, at least two severely.
One US Marine was killed, according to US military officials, the 400th American combat death in Iraq. A US military spokeswoman said several Marines were wounded in the operation.
Witnesses said the fighting ebbed and flowed throughout the day, attracting onlookers during lulls and then abruptly cutting them down as shooting resumed. It was the most intense clash in Fallujah -- a town west of Baghdad that has been the epicenter of Sunni Muslim resistance to the US-led occupation -- since Feb. 14, when insurgents stormed the main Iraqi police station, killing uniformed officers and freeing prisoners.
The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force assumed security responsibility for Fallujah from the Army's 82d Airborne Division on Wednesday. Marine commanders said beforehand that they would bring a "softer" approach to the volatile town, having platoons live in towns and villages around the Sunni Triangle while training Iraqi police and national guard units.
"For the people who would like the Iraqi people to be free and empowered to live in an atmosphere where they don't have to fear for their lives, our approach will indeed be softer," said a Marine spokesman, Major T. V. Johnson, speaking by satellite telephone from a Marine base outside Fallujah. "There is no soft approach for people who are out to fight and prey on innocent Iraqis."
Johnson called the reports of high civilian casualties "heartwrenching," however.
A written statement released by the First Marine command emphasized that the operation was aimed at insurgents: "Those who seek to impede the freedom, prosperity and progress of the Al Anbar [province] residents are being physically challenged. Among those, some have chosen to fight. Having elected their fate, they are being engaged and destroyed."
Johnson said he could provide no details on yesterday's firefight, which he described as an "offensive operation" that was still ongoing as midnight approached.
Residents said the clash unfolded during a Marine search operation that targeted houses in three neighborhoods -- two known as homes to former Iraqi military personnel, the third an industrial area at the town's edge.
Tahseen Ahmed, a guard at the hospital, said heavy fighting erupted between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., when insurgents opened fire on the Marines. News photographs taken on the insurgent side showed men with their faces masked by headscarves loading a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and preparing to fire toward the Americans.
"The shooting seems to be everywhere, because we received cases who were not mujaheddin, were not military, but civilians," said Rassan Obeid Firas, a physician's assistant, using the Arabic term for "holy warriors," as the insurgents are often called here. "We started receiving the victims a little bit after 8:30."
Five of the dead were brought to Fallujah General, a poorly equipped hospital that was overwhelmed by the arrival of wounded and loved ones clamoring for news. Among them was the body of Burhan Mohammed Mazhour, a freelance cameraman from the Fallujah area who had been working for ABC News for two months, according to the network.
"He was just interviewing me, taking footage of the dead and wounded people, right here," Firas said. "Ten minutes later they brought him here almost dead."
Townspeople said Mazhour was mortally wounded while en route to visit the family of another man killed in the fighting.