FALLUJAH, Iraq—After seven Marine deaths in their first 10 days here, the new U.S. troops trying to end Fallujah's anti-American rebellion say surging street fighting is the opening salvo in a half-billion-dollar offensive to pacify the people with both guns and kindness.
The U.S. Marines launched their first full-blown offensive here Friday morning, Marine Maj. T.V. Johnson said Saturday, characterizing the gun battles that so far have killed seven Iraqis and one American as the "first significant fight" since the Marines took over this restive city that bedeviled the Army's 82nd Airborne.
At the same time, he said, Marine civil officers are scouting the city on how to spend a special $540 million outlay for rebuilding projects in al Anbar province, which includes Fallujah.
But in Fallujah, strung with black mourning banners for Friday's dead, the residents were having none of it.
Residents angrily vowed revenge, saying Friday's casualties were caused by Marine reprisals for an insurgent strike on a supply convoy that took out a Humvee with a rocket-propelled grenade. "For each one who is killed, we will get 10 American soldiers," said Abu Mujahid, 35, taunting the fresh Marine forces as "cartoon characters."
"If they want Fallujah to be a battlefield, they are welcome here," said Abu Mujahid, who would only be identified by his nickname, which means fighter's father. "Fallujah city will become a mass grave for Bush and all the soldiers of the American military."
It wasn't supposed to happen this way. The 25,000 members of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force arrived just 10 days ago and systematically took the province covering Fallujah and Ramadi from the 16,000-strong 82nd Airborne, which had been met with riots almost from the first day of the U.S.-led invasion.
The half-billion outlay is meant to show goodwill—by rebuilding schools and making other improvements—and instill law and order. "We're not going to leave it ripe for some other despot to get in here and do what Saddam did for the last 40 years or so," said Johnson.
But while the Marine Civil Affairs teams are still surveying where to dole out the dollars, seven Marines have been killed in the daily mortar and missile attacks that have crept closer to the compounds.
Adopting a new tactic, the Marines have stopped giving information about how Marines have been killed or give any details about the latest battles, saying any information helps the enemy. Instead of explaining how Marines were killed, they say only "due to enemy action."
"Those who seek to impede the freedom, prosperity and progress of the al Anbar residents are being physically challenged," said a Marine communique that declared the blackout on details. "Among those, some have chosen to fight. Having elected their fate, they are being engaged and destroyed."
That left only the Iraqis on Saturday to give an account of the street battles—or to explain a Humvee hood lying in a scorched center of a major thoroughfare on the eastern entrance of town.
Iraqis claiming to be eyewitnesses said the violence began about 4 p.m. local time Thursday when insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade on Marines escorting supply trucks, shattering the Humvee. As if to prove it, they produced a pair of unfired 40 mm American gun rounds they said they found.
By Friday at 7 a.m. local time, the Marines returned, sealed off the eastern entrance and then battled gunmen throughout an adjacent neighborhood, near the spot where Thursday's rocket round was fired.
"They were behaving very badly," said a nearby shopkeeper, Hakim Hashem, 28, who claimed to witness both Thursday's onslaught and Friday's search-and-destroy mission. "They went through the neighborhoods shooting, to frighten the people."
By Saturday, several homes hung black banners of mourning, while others displayed evidence of a recent firefight—blown-out tires on a front-end loader and brick homes hit by shrapnel and pocked with bullet holes.
Leaflets littered the city, which Iraqis believed the Marines left behind in an ominous message that more is more to come. "You can't escape and you can't hide ... the coalition will find you and bring you to justice," said the Arabic message printed over two steely green eyes that stared out in this nation where most Arabs have black eyes.
Johnson said only that major combat began at 7 a.m. Friday and Marines seized people to interrogate in order to sort out who was behind the attacks. He said there would be no official word until a Marine announcement that "combat operations" were over.
Meantime, he said, a special detachment of Navy Seabees, a rapid reaction construction force, were standing by for enough stability to engage in community rebuilding projects.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ