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BAGHDAD, Iraq — They came in loud. Tanks blasted holes in walls, and rockets screamed into buildings. Marines, hunched behind dirt mounds and stacked along walls, bounded out, making their final push into Baghdad, the culmination of nearly three weeks of war.

Marines of Company G, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines stepped into Baghdad on Wednesday, seizing a detention center, an Iraqi military planning headquarters, a United Nations compound and a military hospital. The assault into the Iraqi capital was the final push for these Marines who stepped across the border from Kuwait into Iraq nearly three weeks before.

“There were four buildings we were really focusing on,” said Maj. Larry Kaifesh, company commander. “The night before, we had a lot of firepower coming out from those buildings engaging one of our sister companies and intelligence told us that the Special Republican Guard was using these spots as a firebase.”

But the crack units of Iraq’s military withered away and the tough resistance the Marines expected coming into the city all but disappeared. Instead, they were faced with mass looting by Iraqi civilians, stealing everything from sport utility vehicles to air conditioners, computers and medical supplies.

“My biggest concern was snipers because we were moving into the attack positions in the back of trucks,” Kaifesh explained. “We expected anywhere from a platoon- to company-sized element of the Special Republican Guard and there’s a lot of damage they could have inflicted if they employed their fires correctly.”

It was a lesson learned the night before when 3rd Platoon broke away from Company G to support Company F, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines. Company F Marines were engaged in an all-out street fight with remnants of Iraq’s military forces in narrow alleyways and amongst the civilian population.

“They looked pretty hard core,” said Cpl. Daniel Adams,who fought the Iraqi forces through the night with Company F. “They would drive straight at us, stop the car and just start shooting. It was pretty scary. They didn’t care about dying. They were fanatical.”

Still, the fighting wasn’t effective enough to stop the Marine advance. The entire Marine force swarmed into Baghdad, each battalion assigned its own sector of responsibility.

And based upon the previous night’s fighting, Adams expected a pitched battle for the city’s streets. But the damage done by artillery shelling and deep air strikes dissolved the Iraqi units they were up against.

“At the first compound, we used extreme firepower,” Kaifesh said. “But once we realized it was an empty target, we moved a little faster and with a little more ease. I think it reflects the good job our forces have done with the deep battle.

“We’ve been very cautious about putting Marines into situations where they might be unprotected,” he added. “What we’re finding now is we’re dealing with a new problem. The enemy isn’t an organized unit, but remnants of several units trying to reorganize and resist.”

Throughout the day, the Marines received sporadic fire at their positions in the U.N. compound and Iraqi military hospital. The rattle of AK-47 fire rang in the distance and the booming explosions of rockets and demolition charges and crack of Marine sniper rifles pockmarked the quiet of the night that followed.

“It will just be a matter of time before they buckle,” Kaifesh explained of Iraqi resistance. “It’s like a boxer who won’t throw in the towel, but just keeps standing there taking his lumps.”

The crossing into Baghdad, though, was a milestone for the Marines. Not only was Baghdad the ultimate prize for military planners, but the threshold to complete victory for the troops on the line. Company G, which has been relegated to rear-guard actions, such as holding road intersections and limited small raids, led the assault into the city for their battalion. For the Marines carrying the rifles, the event was exhilarating.

“We’re giving the Iraqis freedom. That’s something that Saddam Hussein took away from them,” said Lance Cpl. Andy Sanduval. “Most of the people are happy to see us. They feel free to express themselves, yelling to us ‘Down with Saddam.’”

It was a reception Sanduval wasn’t quite expecting. The closer Company G traveled to Baghdad, the clearer the signs were of total war and destruction. Burned out hulks of Iraqi armor littered the sides of roads. Artillery emplacements smoldered, and streams of Iraqis were fleeing south to escape the gunfire. Explosions rocked the city the night before Company G crossed into Baghdad and mass stores of mortars, rockets and small arms were found piled in houses on the city’s outskirts.

“It was pretty nerve-wracking,” admitted Lance Cpl. Adam Cooper. “This was warfare in 360 degrees. Everywhere you looked, there was a way for the enemy to shoot at you.”

Cooper said he expected some enemy resistance, but was relieved when it failed to appear. The job now, it appears, is to clean up pockets of enemy holdouts. Many of the Marines are now openly talking about when they might actually go home.

For the Marines of Company G, all reservists, the idea is inviting. They’ve been on active duty for more than a year, serving as a quick reaction force at Camp Pendleton, Calif., before deploying to take part in the war in Iraq.

Now that operations seem to be spinning down, the Marines are excited about the prospect of returning home to families.

“It feels good as hell to be just about done,” Cooper said. “Home is on the other side of Baghdad and now, we’re in Baghdad.”

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