Iraq firefight shows difficulty of fighting enemy while protecting the innocent
CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq — The Marines were patrolling a highway east of Fallujah when they began taking fire. They doubled back and were shot at again.
The platoon pulled up along the highway and pointed its guns toward a truck stop and some men, who were dressed as civilians.
“They looked like regular Iraqi citizens,” said Lance Cpl. Brad Swenson of Northfield, Minn. “It was hard to distinguish where the enemy personnel were. They’re really good at hiding themselves.”
The guerrilla war in Iraq has forced the Marines of Company D, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion to think twice before they shoot. Armed insurgents blend in with everyone else, so U.S. troops use tactics to destroy the enemy while trying not to kill innocent people.
The enemy and the innocents both wear blue jeans and T-shirts or robes with headscarves. The only way to tell the difference is to find the ones with rifles cocked under their arms or rocket-propelled grenades hoisted onto their shoulders.
Third platoon was finishing its six-hour shift early Thursday morning.
They’d been patrolling Route 1, the main supply route between Baghdad and Fallujah, for weeks without being fired upon.
That changed around 7:30 a.m.
“One day you’ll have a guy waving to you, giving you the thumbs up,” said Private 1st Class Randy Williamson of Tobyhanna, Pa. “The next day he gives it to you with an AK-47 [automatic rifle].
“It’s hard when the civilians and insurgents are basically side by side. You kind of have to pick and choose who’s bad and who’s good.”
The Marines fired back and soon gained “fire superiority,” where the enemy was ducking and the troops were able to maneuver. The platoon moved to a position where it was pointed toward the enemy fire but not at the houses in the distance or the cars on the highway.
They say the enemy is trying to goad them into coming into the city and the residential areas. The Marines didn’t take the bait.
For the moment, the platoons are not allowed to proceed into the city with their eight-wheeled killing machines — light-armored vehicles equipped with a 25 mm Bushmaster chain gun, two smaller guns and seven Marines trained to destroy.
Instead, they dismounted their LAV-25s and pushed the enemy back past the hide-and-seek dunes behind the truck stop and held their position. Some of the bad guys who ran away ditched their weapons and reappeared as innocents.
After several hours, 3rd platoon was relieved by 1st platoon, which took up the fight, moving slowly back toward houses from where enemy fire was coming.
“The houses were about four kilometers [away],” said 1st Lt. Ronny Rowell of Anaheim, Calif., the 1st platoon commander. “People were running in and out of the houses.
“They looked suspicious but they also looked like everybody else around. They could have been running from house to house trying to go get weapons or trying to shoot mortars, or they could have been trying to get their kids so they could run away and get protected.”
Helicopters came in and destroyed a few houses from where rockets and mortars were being shot. The fighting on the eastern side of Fallujah continued into Thursday night and the weekend.
For Williamson, who finished boot camp in October and joined his battalion in January, it was his first firefight. He helped take out the enemy fighters and caused others to retreat.
He was happy that he didn’t choke.
“I was afraid we were going to get down to the nitty-gritty and I was going to freeze up,” he said. “It’s not something you want to do when you have [six other guys on your vehicle] worrying about you laying down fire or taking out the guy who is about to shoot an RPG at you.
“Your round can make a difference between something goes wrong and something doesn’t.”
The Marines know they’ll win almost every fight against the insurgents. Usually the score will be lopsided. On Thursday, members of 3rd and 1st platoons killed an estimated 20 members of the enemy but themselves suffered only a handful of minor shrapnel wounds.
Yet the enemy fighters kept showing themselves, only to be killed.
“They know [they can’t win], but in their minds what they’re doing is right for them,” said Lance Cpl. Ken Torok of Redding, Pa.
Yet the enemy runs for cover. Surely those men who were running must have wanted to live, Torok is told.
“They’re just running away to try to find a better spot to attack us,” Torok said. “And it doesn’t work.”