FALLUJAH, Iraq—Jump out. Kick in door. Spray machine-gun fire. Run to rooftop. Kill enemy. Jump back into armored vehicle. Move to new location.
So goes the battle for Fallujah as experienced Friday by the exhausted and bewildered soldiers of the 3rd Brigade of the Army's 1st Infantry Division. Flanked by Marines, the bleary-eyed troops led the southern push to corner diehard Sunni Muslim insurgents who were the last obstacles to full American control of the city.
With about 80 percent of Fallujah under military occupation, U.S. forces were confident they had gained the upper hand in the battle, Marine Lt. Gen. Thomas Sattler, commander of the offensive, told journalists Friday at a military base outside the town.
"Our goal right now—we feel we've broken their back and their spirit—is to keep the heat on them," Sattler said of the militant holdouts.
That is where the 1st ID comes in. Hyped up on No-Doz and survival instincts, the soldiers thrust toward rebel strongholds with four days of relentless combat showing on their faces. They lost their sense of time and place. They did not know 22 of their colleagues had died or 170 were wounded in other parts of the city. They did not know what day it was.
They were not certain what they were accomplishing.
"I'm not sure about stabilizing Iraq," said Spc. John Bandy, 23, of Little Rock, Ark., sucking on a cigarette as bullets ricocheted nearby. "I'm not sure it will be better when we're gone, but it's gotten to the point of retribution for all the things that have happened. The beheadings, the bombings and everything."
In the face of death, little things took on importance. Soldiers wondered how their favorite football teams were doing or where their wives took their kids for dinner.
When it rained, they trudged through mud that dried and turned to dust flecking skin, hair and gear. None of them had bathed or changed clothes in nearly five days. Sleep became impossible. Crammed six to a bench in the back of Bradley Fighting Vehicles, they were a sweat-soaked, blood-spattered stinking mess.
The 3rd Brigade, based out of Vilseck, Germany, came to Iraq eight months ago. A microcosm of America, the brigade includes Midwesterners from Sheboygan, Wis., city kids from east Los Angeles and New Jersey and southerners from Augusta, Ga. They are white, black and American Indian. Spc. Frederick Ofori, 24, is from Ghana.
They are normally stationed in Muqdadiya, Iraq, a mostly Sunni Muslim city 70 miles northeast of Baghdad, Iraq. They were briefly deployed outside the southern Shiite holy city of Najaf, Iraq, during rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's uprising in April. However, they never entered the city, saw no real combat and soon returned to their northern base.
Back then, soldiers said, Fallujah was a place they knew only through grisly news updates on CNN.
The brigade's rank and file was given just a few days' notice of their role on the front lines of Operation Dawn. Many have not even told their families that they are in Fallujah. After days of relentless fighting, the soldiers no longer winced through a symphony of rifle fire, artillery booms, AK-47 bursts and grenade explosions.
Seemingly interminable Bradley rides ended suddenly. "Dismount!" a soldier yelled. The back gate dropped and troops poured out, running as fast as they could toward the nearest wall. They dropped to their knees and got ready to shoot. After a big fight, gunners emptied their turrets and sent bullet casings clinking to the ground.
Reporters embedded with the military are not allowed to report American deaths or injuries in much detail. But bad news sometimes crackled across a radio, silencing the laughter and grumbles inside the Bradley.
Other times, death was closer. A soldier outside his tank was directing traffic when he dropped dead of a sniper bullet. Another was killed by a grenade injury to his chest. Fragments of a rocket-propelled grenade shattered the ankle of a third.
1st Lt. Jeff Emery, 24, of Ramsey, N.J., voiced the frustration of many soldiers when he complained Friday about bursting into a house only to find it empty. The Iraqi home he stood in had lost a large chunk of its roof to American artillery. Rain fell through the hole and soldiers tried to doze on the concrete floor.
Emery's Bradley, which also carried this reporter, was hit by rocket-propelled grenade shrapnel Friday afternoon. So were two others in the platoon.
"It's hard to maneuver against (the insurgents) because we have so many guys and vehicles, and there's just a few of them, who can drop their weapons and run," Emery said. "Every time we do a mass invasion, it seems like most of them are gone."
The soldiers shared laughs during the more surreal moments, such as when a psychological operations truck rolled through the city blaring the theme song to the movie "Team America: World Police." In the film, Rambo-like puppets hunt terrorists and blow up the Eiffel Tower in the process. There is no need to thank us, the puppets tell outraged Parisians.
Later that night, 500-pound bombs fell on Fallujah.
The soldiers rolled their eyes and kept their distance when Iraqi forces, charged with securing mosques and hospitals, arrived on the scene. The newly minted Iraqi soldiers have a tendency to spray bullets at friend and foe alike, U.S. soldiers have learned.
Sitting amid the rubble of a home in southern Fallujah, Sgt. Randy Laird, 24, of Lake Charles, La., challenged Ofori to eat a packet of military-ration crackers in two minutes.
Ofori stuffed his face as his friends giggled. With a gasp, he gave up.
Hours later, Ofori was with a team of soldiers clearing another house. They entered a room and found an insurgent with a grenade in hand, poised to throw.
Ofori shot the man several times in the chest. The rebel flew back, his arms reaching toward the ceiling.
His face drawn and serious, Ofori left the room without a word.
(Lasseter is embedded with the 1st Infantry Division in Fallujah. Hannah Allam contributed from Baghdad. Special correspondent Yasser Salihee contributed from a military base near Fallujah.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Fallujah
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): Fallujah