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In pockets of Fallujah, US troops still face harsh battles

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"You are seeing individuals willing to die, and take as many Americans and Iraqis with them," says Marine Maj. Gen. Richard F. Natonski, 1st Marine Division commander in an interview. "We overwhelm them, but despite that, they put up a very stiff and determined resistance. This [assault] had to be done, because Fallujah was a sanctuary for insurgents, and now it isn't."

As the shooting lit the battlespace with muzzle flashes and noise, a lone US Navy medical corpsman jumped out to gather the wounded. This correspondent moved to help, joining in to pull the three injured men into the vehicle by their flak jackets.

"I'm so sorry! I should have used the frag[mentation] grenade, and not my M-16 [rifle]," Lance Corporal Caseras yelled to his fallen comrades as the vehicle raced toward a combat hospital at Camp Fallujah. Lance Corp. Nathan Douglass was peppered with shrapnel. Also prone in the back of the armored vehicle, on crates full of ammunition and explosives, lay Corp. Catcher Cuts the Rope (his native American name), with a tourniquet above his knee; grenade shards hit his shoulder and hands.

"Don't worry," Corporal Douglass, from Hillsboro, Ore., said consolingly. "We shot so much into that house. There shouldn't have been anybody left."

The final blow came with heavy fire from a Spectre AC-130 gunship, which destroyed four houses used by the insurgents with 40 Howitzer shells.

The toll from a brutal night: One dead marine and nine wounded, including this correspondent, who was struck in the arm by a small piece of shrapnel.

The firefight brings the casualty rate in the Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR) company to 1 man in 5; far less than the 60 percent reached during the battle for Vietnam's Hue City in 1968, the last urban assault before Fallujah waged by US Marines - but far higher than most modern combat operations.

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