US marines came under fierce coordinated attack by Iraqi guerrillas Monday, in a firefight that could threaten peace efforts and prompt an all-out US offensive to crush resistance in the city.
The cost of the battle - one soldier was killed and eight others wounded- was evident outside the surgical unit at the main Marine base, seven miles east of Fallujah. The back of one Humvee was splashed with blood.
Marines at the fight, some with blood on their boots, all waiting for news of their comrades, say an estimated 50 to 150 insurgents launched a well-organized attack from a mosque and its environs. The minaret of the mosque - from which the marines say they were fired upon - was reportedly destroyed.
The attack began soon after members of the 2nd Battalion 1st Marine Regiment, on the northwest corner of a citywide cordon, pushed 300 yards forward to occupy an abandoned house from which they say they had received sporadic fire in the past.
"They're not stupid - they know what they're doing," says 1st Lt. Todd Jacobs, from Cincinnati, of the rebel tactics. "They're not marines, but to think they are a bunch of Bedouins running through the desert is a fallacy."
US forces faced violence elsewhere in the country Monday. A blast in Baghdad leveled part of a chemical building, as American troops searched it for evidence of weapons production. Two soldiers were killed and five wounded. And Al Arabiya TV broadcast a tape of three Italians held captive in Iraq. The tape said their captors planned to kill the hostages in five days, if the Italian people do not protest their country's presence in Iraq.
In Fallujah, a tentative cease-fire - despite numerous violations - has largely calmed the violence that flared in early April, killing scores of marines and hundreds of Iraqis. US commanders have been weighing the risks of delaying an attack - which may have given insurgents time to regroup and reorganize - against the political and military repercussions of a full assault.
Joint US-Iraqi police patrols were meant to begin this week. It was not clear how Monday's violence, and the significance of its organization, would affect US strategy to secure the city.
Marines said the rebels advanced in groups of two to four, using rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles, and numerous 60-mm or 82-mm mortars."It was very well organized - they tried to cut our resupply lines," says 1st Lieutenant Jacobs, standing not far from where a makeshift plywood platform was stained with blood. "They've broken the cease-fire from the beginning. This was the highest concentration of mortars we've seen."
This unit says it was involved in a battle that left 36 rebels dead on April 21, just days after the cease-fire came into effect. Another company of the same battalion killed 11 insurgents - who also reportedly launched their assault from a mosque - early Sunday.
"The way [Monday's attack] was organized was much bigger than in the past," says Lance Cpl. Jacob Atkinson, from Richmond. "It's like they are running their headquarters out of the mosque."
"They've been using the mosque and the minaret to sight us," says Lance Cpl. Edward Day from Corpus Christi, Texas. Five hours after fighting erupted, the marines said, radio traffic indicated that the battle had not yet come to an end.
Lt. Gen. James Conway, the US Marine commander in Iraq, charged last Thursday that the rebels often "violate" the rules of war.
He listed the use of ambulances to move fighters and weapons, and the "use of mosques to stage weapons, place snipers in the minarets, conduct meetings, and use as command and control sites."
US troops "honor the mosque" until it is used for such purposes, General Conway said, and "has lost its sanctity."
These marines, who have been deployed around Fallujah since early April, say they are not surprised. "Bad guys don't follow rules - that's why they are bad guys," says Lance Cpl. Russ Vansteel, from Detroit.
"We don't speak Arabic, we don't know what they broadcast from the mosque [at prayer time]," says Corporal Vansteel. "Maybe they say: 'Americans are over there, and pray a little bit.' It's annoying."
Most of these marines took part in the invasion of Iraq last year, and Vansteel remembers roaring into Baghdad, and setting up at one of Saddam Hussein's palaces. The fighting today couldn't be more different, he says.
"Last time, we rolled with tanks, and they were scared - they got out of the way," Vansteel says. "This time, it seems they grew [in daring], and are trying to take us on. In Baghdad, there were a lot more people who valued their lives."
Members of the unit loaded up into three Humvees - the one still splashed with blood - to return to the Fallujah front. "First we've got to load up on ammo," says Gunnery Sgt. Daniel Jonas, "then get back to where we belong."