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Insurgency continues to challenge U.S. troops in Anbar province

CAMP HABBANIYAH, Iraq—It was 9 a.m. and the start of another day of U.S. Lt. Col. Todd Desgrosseilliers' hands-on approach to counterinsurgency.

Most go well, at least by the perilous standards for Marines operating in Anbar province, the heart of Iraq's Sunni Muslim insurgency. Wednesday, however, would not.

By the end of the day, one Marine would lie badly injured from a sniper's bullet and another would be startled from a close call that struck the goggles perched atop his helmet.

Attention has been focused in recent weeks on U.S. patrols in Baghdad, where American and Iraqi soldiers are trying to seize control of neighborhoods from Sunni insurgents and Shiite Muslim militiamen responsible for dozens of deaths daily. On Wednesday, the U.S. military announced that 11 American troops had died since Tuesday in and around Baghdad, raising to 70 the number of Americans killed so far this month in Iraq.

But fighting hasn't slowed in Anbar, where most U.S. casualties in the war have come, and commanders here have acknowledged they don't have enough troops to beat the insurgents with sheer force.

So Desgrosseilliers, the lean, soft-spoken commander of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, from Camp Lejeune, N.C., is hoping to persuade the enemy to quit.

"I want them to stop fighting," he said. "We fight their strategy, we don't fight them."

That makes it crucial to avoid hurting or killing innocent civilians, and the men in Desgrosseilliers' battalion are counseled constantly not to return fire unless they're certain of their target, no matter how bad the incoming fire.

"It takes a lot of individual courage on the part of these Marines," Desgrosseilliers said. "But if we do that, if we show the locals that we are willing to put ourselves at risk for their security, they will respect us."

Since it arrived in July, the 3rd Battalion has lost eight Marines, a translator and two other U.S. troops working with it. Most of the casualties came in a one-month stretch when the Marines were on an offensive, which meant that the chances of any one Marine in the unit getting killed that month were about 1 in 100.

Desgrosseilliers' personal detachment of 15 Marines, known as the battalion jump team, began its day Wednesday with a briefing from its fast-talking platoon commander, Lt. Jon Mueller, 29, of Denver. Then the Marines strapped body armor over their fire-resistant jumpsuits, pulled on their Kevlar helmets and flame-resistant gloves and climbed into their armored Humvees.

The mission was typical: Drive west from Camp Habbaniyah toward Ramadi, checking in with several of the 15 small outposts where Marines are scattered along a stretch of road between Fallujah and Ramadi.

At the first stop, in the town of Khaladiya, the Iraqi captain in charge took Desgrosseilliers behind the outpost and showed him bullet holes in the walls and impact craters in several bulletproof windows.

It wasn't safe, obviously, Desgrosseilliers said. But it was safer than when the Marines had arrived. Then, three out of five shops across the street were closed because of fighting. Now nearly all are open, and a small crowd of shoppers was milling around. The town has a new mayor and the Iraqi government is building a police station to replace one that the insurgents destroyed.

Next stop: a bridge where the Marine outpost is attacked nearly every day.

The Marines' goal is to build a string of outposts all the way to Ramadi so that stretches of road now closed to civilians can reopen, Desgrosseilliers said. Then they'll hand over the area to Iraqi forces.

On the way to the third stop, a burly Marine who was traveling with the jump team but wasn't a member of it reminded a reporter to keep moving when outside the Humvee. The patrol was in an area where a sniper had been active, he said.

Two minutes later, when the patrol stopped so Desgrosseilliers could check in with a team of Marines with tanks, the burly Marine stepped out of his Humvee and walked about 15 yards toward the tanks. The flat snap of a shot rang out from about 150 yards away in the direction of a mosque, houses and shops.

The bullet hit just under the left side of the Marine's jaw and passed through his mouth, knocking out some teeth and exiting through his right cheek. He fell to the pavement and a pool of blood began spreading around his head.

The shooting continued.

Cpl. Mario Huerta, 22, of Dallas, was standing outside his Humvee when he heard the first shot and looked back. A bullet whirred just above him, then another smacked into the goggles on his Kevlar helmet, rocking his head and denting the goggles but not hurting him.

"Son of a bitch," said the turret gunner in Desgrosseilliers' truck, ducking and peering through the bulletproof glass.

Desgrosseilliers turned when he heard the initial shot, saw that the burly Marine was down and sprinted nearly 100 yards, ignoring the bullets zipping past his head.

Desgrosseilliers was wounded twice in the second battle of Fallujah in fall 2004. In one firefight, he stepped between a pair of insurgents' grenades and two other Marines to take the blast. Nine days later, he dashed through a stream of point-blank machine-gun fire. Not only did he live, he continued to fight both times. He later received the Silver Star, the military's third-highest decoration for valor.

Desgrosseilliers was the first to get to the wounded Marine, whose name can't be divulged under military press rules. He rolled the wounded man onto his back, then heard shots zipping past his head.

Joined by Navy corpsman George Grant, 25, of Brooklyn, Desgrosseilliers ordered the Humvees drawn into a circle to block the shots. Then he and Grant ran a breathing tube up the wounded man's nose so he wouldn't drown in his own blood.

The closest field hospital was about 4 miles back, down a road where improvised bombs are common. Desgrosseilliers' Humvee took the lead, its siren blaring to clear the road.

Another unit began surrounding the area where the shots had come from and going door to door.

Within eight minutes, the jump team slid to a stop in front of the surgical unit at an air base near Camp Habbaniyah. Desgrosseilliers joined several jump-team Marines and orderlies in carrying the wounded man inside on a stretcher.

After a few minutes, Grant came out, blood all over his jumpsuit, and sat on the ground, wordless.

Later a doctor came out and told Navy corpsman George Grant it looked as if the Marine would live, that he'd been stabilized and would be flown to a larger hospital.

Desgrosseilliers emerged and stood silent as Mueller gathered the members of the jump team in a circle and told them that they'd done a good job and he was glad they were safe.

Earlier in the war, maybe, or under a different commander, the Marines might have returned heavy fire in the general direction of the sniper to make him stop.

This time, they hadn't fired, not even once. No one could see exactly where the shots were coming from, and a stream of bullets into the town could have hit innocent civilians and seriously damaged Desgrosseilliers' plan to calm the area.

Back in camp, he said he was proud of his men for being so disciplined.

"I think the insurgency is trying to get us off our message by getting us to return fire and maybe kill some innocent people," Desgrosseilliers said. "But it's just not going to work."


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.