During Truce, Marines Endure Boredom and Sporadic Fire

Troops Wait Out Tense Lull On Fallujah's Front Lines

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 16, 2004; Page A10

FALLUJAH, Iraq, April 15 -- It's been nearly a week since Marine forces here were ordered to suspend offensive operations -- six days of twitchy boredom, punctuated by brief bursts of action.

In a dusty carpentry workshop piled with crates of ammunition and water bottles, a dozen men have passed the time reading detective novels, swapping plastic-pouched ravioli for enchiladas and retelling stories of the latest Marine sniper kill or the mortar round that just missed their Humvee.

"When there's a lull like this, it's hard to keep your adrenaline high," said Lt. Adam McCully, 27. Here at the Alpha Company command post on Fallujah's urban front line, the Marines sit squarely between a deserted industrial zone and a residential area crawling with insurgents. Nevertheless, said McCully, there is "a constant battle against complacency."

Up on the roof, though, Lance Cpl. Tom Browne, 21, focused intently on the danger that could instantly shatter the calm of a mild spring day.

Stretched out behind a machine gun inside a small cement shed, he squinted through a niche at the empty blocks beyond, looking for the smallest sign of movement.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, a man and woman tentatively crossed the alley, carrying a white flag. Browne trained his weapon on them but did not fire.

Five minutes later, another Marine on the roof spotted a man in a white robe coming out of his house and bending over in his garden.

Browne tensed, watched, waited. The rooftop around him was littered with spent shell casings. In the distance rose the tiled minaret of a mosque, gouged by a missile.

"If he displays hostile intent, drop him," the other Marine whispered. The man in the white robe kept gardening, apparently oblivious.

Impatient, the other Marine squeezed off one warning round from his M-16, and the man scurried back inside.

"Nobody should be on these streets now," Browne remarked, still squinting down his gunsight. "We gave them a chance to leave, and if they didn't, chances are they are up to no good." By this point, he confided, "I don't really think of them as people any more."

Last Friday, the Marines suspended their push into the city of 200,000 and began urging women, children and old men to leave. Since then, at least 70,000 people are believed to have fled, but tens of thousands remain virtually trapped in their homes.

But the troops on the front lines see only mean streets, and must think mean thoughts to survive. A white flag could be a ruse. A gardener could be digging up a weapon. Sometimes, the snipers shoot barking dogs to keep them from giving away hiding places.

Most Marines here grew mustaches before they arrived here last month, preparing for a mission to ensure security and build goodwill in a Muslim society where most men wear mustaches or beards. But two weeks ago, as they prepared to surround and attack the city after a series of insurgent attacks, they all shaved them off.

"We grew them when we thought this would be a different mission, a lot of peacekeeping stuff," said Lt. Mike Liguori, 25. "But then things changed, and our mindsets changed, too. Now we are here to win a battle. Frankly, it lifted the battalion's spirits to be pushing instead of waving and smiling."

Now, after nearly a week in limbo, with their drive into the city halted for humanitarian and diplomatic reasons, the combat-eager Marines recount with relish the gun battles that periodically erupt.

For the last two days, the hot topic among troops at the Alpha Company post has been the mission by a quick reaction squad that fought its way through blocks of gunfire Tuesday evening to rescue the crew of an armored vehicle that had strayed onto enemy turf, was hammered with grenade fire and burst into flames.

Lt. Joshua Glover, 25, the taciturn officer who commands the rescue squad, stopped by the post Wednesday and was surrounded by admiring men with strong handshakes, high-fives and unprintable compliments.

Later, the Marines exchanged stories of their own dramatic escapes.

There was the mortar round that landed next to 20 men but split a nearby tree in half, diffusing the weapon's impact. And there were the machine-gun bursts that erupted in a workshop where three Marines were camped, causing a moment's panic.

"It was like a cartoon in slow motion. There were sparks and dust and chunks of cement flying everywhere," said Capt. Don Maraska, 37. "It was terrifying, but when it was over, there wasn't a scratch on us. We just sat there and shook for a while."

The men have coined nicknames for their unseen enemies here, like Bob the Sniper, who has repeatedly popped up on roofs, taken potshots at Marine positions and vanished. At the Alpha post, Marines said they heard muezzins chanting from minarets beneath the ear-splitting booms of aircraft cannon fire, which coincided with the first call to prayer. Long after the barrage ended, frightened dogs still howled in the dark.

During the day, the men have learned when to expect enemy gunfire to start up, usually just after noon and then again at nightfall. They know which sounds they can ignore and which mean they must drop their week-old copies of Stars and Stripes and dive for cover.

"A slow and steady boom-boom-boom is outgoing. A sharp and uneven pop-pop-pop is coming at you," Liguori explained.

Back at the empty factory that the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment uses as a command base, the lull in fighting has allowed troops to develop a somewhat settled routine. Wooden outdoor showers have been built under a row of palm trees, and on Thursday a truckload of mail and care packages arrived from the States.

At night, incoming mortar rounds often land outside the factory, shaking the warehouse and shattering glass. But in the early morning, softer sounds have awakened the troops napping on the floor between sleepless stints on the front lines.

First Sgt. Dwayne Farr, from Detroit, hefts his bagpipes over his flak jacket and wanders through the compound tootling "Amazing Grace" and Scottish airs while rooftop snipers close their eyes to listen. An Army officer sitting in a broken chair outside the warehouse strums flamenco melodies on his guitar.

"It's nice to hear something besides the rockets' red glare and the bombs bursting in air," said Staff Sgt. Roland Salinas, nodding appreciatively to Farr's piping Thursday. "Out here, we all need something to soothe the mind."
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