CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq—Still sweaty and soiled from two weeks of Humvee patrols in pursuit of an elusive enemy, Marine Lance Corporal Don Gray was spoiling Saturday for face-to-face battle with the shadowy resistance fighters who have frustrated U.S. forces.
"If we fight them, we will kill them," said Gray, 20, whose 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment has spent long days and dark nights finding booby traps but few fighters in towns west of Fallujah. "I want to kill them so that we don't have to come back in two months, two years, five years, 10 years ..."
Gray was among hundreds of Marine infantrymen massing at this dusty former Iraqi military base to rest and shower, itching to get on with the fight that in three weeks made April the deadliest month for Americans since U.S. forces set foot in Iraq 13 months ago.
But with ground and air forces in place for attack, it is still uncertain when, or if, an all-out ground assault on this unruly city of 250,000 Iraqis will come.
U.S. officials are still pursuing two other efforts to defuse the crisis short of house-to-house urban combat. On one hand, they are offering millions of dollars to help rebuild the city in an effort to coax Iraqis to join them in disarming the insurgents and policing the city. On the other, they are conducting selective strikes aimed at thinning the ranks of the insurgents.
Early Saturday, Marines called in AC-130 "Spectre" gunships and killed about 30 Arabs at an encampment along the Euphrates River after two people were spotted setting up a mortar.
"I can rubble that city and reduce it to crushed stone and walk over it quickly. But that is not the ideal, it may be the worst thing to do," said Col. John Coleman, chief of staff of the 30,000-strong 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, in charge of military operations across Anbar province, where Fallujah is located. "I don't want to be owning Fallujah with some Marines downtown who are getting potshots everyday because we took no Iraqis with us."
Signs abound at this base of both war preparations and cautious negotiations.
Hundreds of 1st Marine Division infantrymen who have been arrayed across the province rumbled under cover of darkness this weekend into Camp Fallujah, six miles outside the city, turning a portion of the base into a huge parking lot of amphibious assault vehicles, tanks and armored Humvees, their men showering and resting up for their next orders.
Stocks of everything from food and fuel to ammunition and fresh water are being bolstered after several weeks in which guerrilla attacks disrupted supply lines. Fresh fruits and vegetables turned up at the Marine chow hall for the first time in weeks this weekend to help feed the building infantry forces, who have been living on vacuum-packed field rations.
Marine engineers were rolling out razor wire as the finishing touch on a rugged 750-man detention facility to sort out and interrogate suspects captured in any offensive. When the Army was in charge just over a month ago, the prison accommodated 100.
"It's basic, it's not a hotel," said Marine Capt. Chris Iazzetta, 33, the prison camp warden, showing crude 5-by-6-foot wooden plank and chain link cages surrounded by dirt filled barriers meant to keep solitary confinement prisoners alive in a mortar attack.
Senior U.S. officials, including U.S. Administrator Paul Bremer, Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez visited the camp Saturday. Military spokesmen would not provide details on their discussions, except to say they had not met with Iraqis.
In the same building, other U.S. officials met with Iraqis from Fallujah and Baghdad, trying to get them to enforce an April 19 agreement for residents to give up heavy weapons and hoping they'll persuade Iraqi police to start joint patrols with U.S. forces.
The top U.S. officials did not meet with the Fallujans, whose identities were not revealed for fear of reprisals against them. But Coleman, who was part of the negotiations, said they are enlisting some Fallujans to serve as police, after U.S. vetting.
Marine commanders, who have been studying the city for nearly a year, had hoped to bring peace to this region, which they began patrolling just a month ago, by providing nearly $540 million in reconstruction and quality-of-life improvement projects.
But those projects have been put on hold as the Marines try to pacify a province where they have been anything but welcomed.
While news media attention has been focused primarily on Fallujah, hundreds of Marines have been engaged in search and destroy missions throughout the province. Some Marines describe the task as frustrating.
"One moment you can be driving—and the next moment you see a guy pop up with an RPG or an AK," said Capt. Karl Fritsch, 26, of Auburn, Calif., referring to rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 assault rifles. Still soiled from a two-week search and destroy mission, Fritsch reported his unit had captured one rebel suspect and detected 62 deadly booby trap bombs in the mostly abandoned town of Karmah, a fourth the size of Fallujah.
The Marines have mostly beaten the insurgents when they face them in battle. But the booby traps have proven to be a more implacable problem. A column of Humvees was stopped in its tracks outside Karmah Friday while experts disarmed a series of 155-milimeter shells fashioned daisy chain style on the side of the road.
Meantime, there are daily reminders of two weeks of bloody clashes.
U.S. officials announced Saturday that a Marine, whose name was withheld, died of wounds suffered in an enemy attack eight days earlier.
Navy doctors at the major military medical service here, Bravo Surgical Company, have moved their triage center inside a cement building from a soft cover tent—in case the enemy resumes mortaring the base after a week-long hiatus. Earlier this month, a mortar round killed an Army doctor and medic.
And in a dusty corner of the sprawling base, 14 Marines got Purple Hearts in Spartan open-air ceremonies presided over by Brig. Gen. Richard S. Kramlich, the general in charge of combat services.
Among them was Lance Corporal Jeffrey Scott, 20, of New York, who lost all feeling in his legs for two days after an April 6 mortar attack on his unit as they built barricades against suicide bombers.
The slug struck the back plate of his bulletproof vest, causing his spine to swell, but sparing him permanent paralysis. He kept the slug in the chest pocket of his desert uniform, even as the general pinned the Purple Heart on it. Scott said he would carry it there always, "as a little reminder that I'm not invincible."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.