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Soldiers in Fallujah fight against guerrillas who shoot, disappear

FALLUJAH, Iraq—The cannon on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle roared, sending a flurry of 25 mm explosive rounds into the road where two insurgents were scampering for their lives on Wednesday.

"There's body parts all over the streets. Yes!" yelled Spc. Arthur Wright.

Outside, the fresh corpses of two men were sprawled in the sun, one mangled beyond recognition. They'd dropped their rocket-propelled grenade launchers a few yards away.

The men of the 1st Infantry Division's 2-2 Task Force scrambled out of their Bradleys to inspect the remains. One insurgent had about $800 in American bills, now soaked with blood, in his bag.

A few minutes later, the soldiers left the dead lying in the street. There were more snipers to find.

U.S. planners had expected to battle a massive insurgency in Fallujah, but much of the fighting has been against small teams of guerrillas. For American troops, the enemy is a shadow, flitting between balconies and down alleyways, shooting RPGs from crevices two blocks away, then disappearing.

After busting through neighborhoods in northeast Fallujah behind a line of armor Monday night, the 2-2 Task Force soldiers found themselves ahead of other troops in the city and taking fire from snipers hidden in the honeycomb of houses around them. Military intelligence reports suggest that the insurgents have left caches of weapons—mortar tubes, RPGs, stacks of AK-47 rifles—scattered in houses around town, waiting for them to run in and grab at a moment's notice.

Bullets pinged by the soldiers, and RPGs zipped overhead. Mortar rounds came flying down. Blasts of gunfire would begin with a loud, violent start, and just as soon be over.

"When the rounds come in, we have to take cover," said Sgt. Joseph Alvey. "By the time we come back up, they're gone."

So on Wednesday, the men of Task Force 2-2 went hunting.

Loading up in their Bradleys, the soldiers moved block to block, watching for movement from rooftops and, as much as anything, waiting for someone to start shooting at them. The vehicles would stop in front of a house where scouts or unmanned aerial vehicles had reported activity, then pound the walls with shells and machine-gun fire.

When the rear door of the Bradley opened, the troops went running out, taking cover against walls before busting down doors with shotguns or boots. There was dust and smoke inside the buildings from the Bradley's assault, so the men would pause for a moment, waiting for the air to clear and hoping no gunman was watching.

"Every place we take a roof, the RPGs come flying," said Sgt. Scott Bentley. "Yesterday, we got pinned down for two hours ... we were just kind of spraying (bullets) and praying."

Peering through his scope, checking for movement on the street below, Staff Sgt. Thorsten Lamm grimaced. The streets, he knew, have been clear of civilians for days, but there had been the sound of someone walking across broken glass in a nearby building.

"All they do is shoot, drop and run, and go on to another building and do it again," he said.

An RPG streaked overhead as Lamm and the men around him crouched down.

"It's very frustrating," he said, "their running and hiding."

The cat-and-mouse game has been wearisome for troops already tired from getting only a few hours of sleep a night, if that. Many didn't tell their families that they were being deployed to Fallujah.

"It's kind of crazy here," said Sgt. Joshua Franqui, with a tired look on his face. Franqui was in a firefight the day before that killed two or three men carrying RPGs next to a trash dump.

Insurgents carried away all but one of the dead, who apparently was too big to carry. The soldiers in the area have taken to calling him "The Fat Man" and gladly take visitors to see his corpse, with its arms thrown back and left leg blown off.

Franqui was talking about the fight, in a low tone, when someone walked by and asked, "Hey, Franqui, how many kills you got?"

Franqui looked down.

"I don't know, man," he said. "Sometimes they sort of vaporize when we hit 'em."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.