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Insurgents in western Iraq town prove an elusive enemy for Marines

HAQLANIYAH, Iraq—The U.S. and Iraqi troops trudged through the narrow, dusty alleyways looking for an enemy that disappears like a ghost and hoping a rocket-propelled grenade would not come screaming from the rooftops. They squinted at graffiti calling for their execution, and tore down leaflets bragging about 20 Marines killed nearby last week.

With most of the fighting over after a large-scale invasion of the western Iraq town Friday, the troops in Haqlaniyah spent hours Sunday under a fiery sun looking for an adversary that often shoots and vanishes without a trace.

Their frustration mirrors that of units in much of western Iraq, where homebred Sunni Muslim insurgents—some angry about the downfall of secular dictator Saddam Hussein, others seeking the dream of a Sunni theocracy—have joined with foreign fighters coming across a porous desert border looking for the glory of international jihad.

The guerrilla fighters often leave a rear guard to fight advancing U.S. forces, while moving the majority of their men on to other towns where the Marines have no presence and the police have fled or been disbanded.

For the past two years, the U.S. military has staged operations through the vast deserts of western Iraq, chasing insurgents up and down the Euphrates River valley that splits the sands.

As troops walked in and out of houses Sunday, they heard phones ringing. An Iraqi interpreter working with the Marines, who gave his name as Sabah, picked up phones when he could reach them in time.

When he hung up, Sabah smiled. The callers said to be careful—the Americans are on their way.

"We need to win the intelligence war, that's what it's all about," said Marine Capt. John A. Kasparian, a spokesman for Marines in the area. As more Iraqi troops move into towns, they hope to be able to get a better idea of who the insurgents are and how they operate, he said.

Standing in front of their homes, Haqlaniyah's sons said the insurgents—called mujahadeen, or holy warriors, here—are everywhere, but they did not know where to find them.

Army Capt. Terrence Sommers spent much of the day with the Iraqi troops he advises, looking for some hint of the enemy.

Khalif Hamadi, a paunchy, middle-aged man with a bemused grin, told Sommers that the mujahadeen run the town of Haqlaniyah.

"You say the area is bad, but where do the bad people live?" Sommers asked.

"I see them driving on the roads but I don't know where they live," Hamadi said. "I don't know where they're going."

Hamadi and Sommers stood for awhile, staring at each other, both knowing that Hamadi was not telling all he knew.

Hamadi broke the silence: "Nobody can say anything about them because they are dangerous people."

Down the street, there was a newly built wall between two buildings that, from the street, looked like the back of a small home. On the other side, though, was a footpath that led to another footpath that led to a road a couple of blocks away.

"Damn," Sommers said, "that's a great escape route."

In a formation of Iraqi troops behind Sommers, Sgt. Ahmed Waheed said he thought most insurgents had hidden their weapons and gone back to tending their gardens or herding sheep.

"I know the difference between a foreign Arab fighter and an Iraqi, but when the fighter is Iraqi, I cannot tell who he is," Waheed said. "We cannot recognize the enemy because he dresses like a civilian and he drives in a civilian car. He looks like everyone else."

The men found traces in some houses. Three brothers were found with a high-powered pair of binoculars. A man had a flour sack of new tennis shoes hidden in a barrel behind a goat pen. And a medical clinic had fliers on the wall extolling the virtues of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein.

Rifling through the bag of shoes, Sommers frowned.

"The doctor heals them, these guys give them shoes, another guy is the forward observer—it's like an assembly line," said Sommers, 34, of Augusta, Ga. "They know when we're coming and going. There's not much we can do."

A few miles to the north was Haditha, the site of a bloody ambush that killed six Marines on Aug. 1—including one whose corpse was reportedly videotaped by insurgents—and a powerful roadside bomb that killed 14 on Wednesday.

"Those insurgents, they'll pay for what they did last week—it may not be tomorrow, but they'll pay," said Marine Private First Class Scotty Sanders, 20, of Woodstock, Ala. "That's why we're here."

Late in the morning, Sommers and his men stopped to speak with an elderly man and his son, Mohammed, an employee in Iraq's Ministry of Oil. The old man, who did not give his name, was busy warning about the dangers of the insurgency as Iraqi troops searched his son's truck.

There was a stack of cassette tapes. They popped one in and turned up the volume. A man's voice wailed: "The people must come to Jihad in Iraq. The Americans are here, come to Jihad."

As Sommers walked through the downtown market area later, his translator called out the meaning of graffiti spray-painted on almost every storefront—"Allah is our God, Jihad is our way"; "Long live the mujahadeen"; "Long live jihad"; "It is your duty to fight for jihad in Iraq"; "Death to those who collaborate with Americans."

Sweat poured down Sommers' face. His uniform was caked with dirt. An Army reservist who has a private legal practice in Augusta, Sommers had just 16 days before finishing his tour in Iraq. It was something he looked forward to, he said.

Back in the Iraqi formation, Waheed said he didn't know where the insurgents were, but he was certain of one thing: "When we leave, they will come back."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-PATROL

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