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SOUTHERN IRAQ — Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment have wanted their turn on the front since the fighting began in Iraq.

For the first week of the ground war, these Marines were relegated to the rear, securing bridges and holding towns as reinforced Marine regiments passed by them.

“We were wondering if we were just here for looks,” said Lance Cpl. Allan Alcibar, an infantryman with Company G.

Looks like he and the rest of the Marines in the 2nd Battalion got their answer Thursday.

After waiting for several days on the outskirts of An Nasiriyah, the 23rd Marines joined the fight. Task Force Tarawa, which includes the battalion, pushed through the city and started hunting down determined groups of Fedayeen forces and Baath Party fighters.

“They’ve given the battalion a chance to get into the war,” Alcibar said.

When the Marines headed toward An Nasiriyah, they knew they were in a war zone. Burned hulks of enemy tanks still smoldered in their dug-in fighting positions, the crack of gunfire echoed through the streets of the towns outside of the bigger city and the Marines were ready as they moved closer.

The fighting had been furious and chaotic. Automatic weapons, grenade launchers and anti-tank rockets thundered through An Nasiriyah as the 2-23rd Marines rolled through the secured portions of the highway — firefights erupting around them.

The push north put the Marines into the mix as convoys of tanks, armored vehicles and 7-ton trucks leapfrogging each other, covering and clearing small cities and villages along the highway route.

As the Marines continued to move into An Nasiriyah, Company F came across a dug-in group of Fedayeen. It took nearly three hours to defeat them even with the help of mortars and a few Marine AH-1W SuperCobras. The Marines took more than a dozen prisoners, some dressed in U.S. military “chocolate chip” desert uniforms worn by servicemembers during the Gulf War.

The first taste of battle inspired the group.

“It felt reassuring, seeing what Marines could do,” said Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Laffere. “If you think about it, you don’t want someone to be shy behind the weapon when the bullets are flying.”

Still, the determination of the Iraqi irregulars surprised some Marines.

Reports of Iraqis firing AK-47s at M1A1 Abrams tanks circulated among the Marines. The Iraqi forces have been relatively small compared to the multiple Marine battalions, heavy with armor, artillery and mortars. The Iraqis were fighting with small arms, some rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and few anti-tank rockets.

“It’s actually kind of frustrating,” said Cpl. Rene Gonzalez. “They’re using guerrilla tactics against all this firepower. But you’ve got to give them credit, they’re pretty ballsy people.”

Contact with enemy Iraqi forces increased in intensity and frequency as the Marines continued to tick away the miles on their northward route. The determination of the Iraqi forces has many wondering what lies ahead as they encounter larger cities farther north, and eventually Baghdad.

“It’s going to get much busier,” said Lance Cpl. Samuel Mejia. “Things are going to be worse.”

Gonzalez predicted that many of the advantages the Marines enjoy with technology would evaporate in the urban areas where Fedayeen and Baath Party irregulars are hiding out. Heavy armor becomes cumbersome in narrow alleys and air cover from helicopters is risky in the maze of city streets where Marines are often just yards away from enemy forces.

Still, it’s a fight, he said.

“They know where to hide,” Gonzalez said. “We see it already. They’re always taking pot shots at us. The Marines are anxious to get some, they’re so pissed off.”

— Stars and Stripes reporter Mark Oliva is embedded with the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, which is fighting in southern Iraq.

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