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From left: Spc. Jason Fonseca, 25, of New York, N.Y.; Staff Sgt. Jeff Anderson, 24, of Montgomery, Ala.; Sgt. Mikeal Auton, 23, of Lenoir, N.C.; and Pfc. Victor Flores, 21, of Phoenix, Ariz., sit at Combat Outpost Burma shortly after tangling with an insurgent in northeast Tal Afar on Monday.
From left: Spc. Jason Fonseca, 25, of New York, N.Y.; Staff Sgt. Jeff Anderson, 24, of Montgomery, Ala.; Sgt. Mikeal Auton, 23, of Lenoir, N.C.; and Pfc. Victor Flores, 21, of Phoenix, Ariz., sit at Combat Outpost Burma shortly after tangling with an insurgent in northeast Tal Afar on Monday. (Monte Morin / S&S)

TAL AFAR, Iraq — Staff Sgt. Jeff Anderson had barely searched the room before he got a bad vibe.

The rest of the house was filled with furniture and “lots of nice things,” he said, but this room was different. It had a simple wood couch, a wall closet and a framed poster. That’s all.

The 24-year-old Montgomery, Ala., native tugged the poster off the wall. There was a ventlike opening behind it — the kind of place where insurgents stash weapons. He dragged the couch over to boost himself up and have a peek.

“I pulled the couch away from the wall and I heard this ‘click, click, click,’” Anderson said. “I turned to the guy behind me and looked at him like — did you just hear that? And that’s pretty much when the couch exploded in my face.”

Amazingly, the blast did little more than deafen Anderson for a few seconds. Before the smoke cleared, Anderson’s squad from 2nd Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment got their next surprise: A grenade dropped out of the hole, skittered across the floor and exploded.

“If I never moved that picture frame nothing would have happened,” Anderson said. “Once that couch blew up, he knew we were coming to get him.”

As 1st Armored Division troops in Tal Afar pursue an aggressive strategy of house raids and random searches, soldiers have experienced only fleeting contact with the enemy. In most instances, insurgents have chosen to fire and flee, or used roadside bombs and booby traps.

But on Monday, Company B soldiers found themselves locked in a rare, five-hour showdown with a cornered gunman and suspected suicide bomber who had bunkered himself into the wall of a home. Soldiers used rifles, grenades, blocks of C-4 explosives and a remote-controlled robot on the insurgent, who — it seemed — simply refused to die.

“Most of these guys, it’s just not in the cards that they’re going to stay and fight,” said Capt. Michael P. McCusker, the company commander. “This was very unusual … The guy was determined to fight to the death.”

The episode began around 9 a.m. when soldiers rolled out of Combat Outpost Burma and began a routine search of buildings. The platoon never got past the first houses they came to. As Anderson led his squad into a home, Sgt. Mikeal Auton, 23, of Lenoir, N.C., led his squad into an adjacent barn filled with sheep and heaping piles of hay. Auton’s soldiers found a plastic bag filled with a fertilizer explosive, as well as metal bolts and nuts — ready-made shrapnel. They found a second bomb and a suicide vest.

Anderson’s squad intensified their search of the house next door. After the couch detonated, they turned their focus on the man in the wall.

“We hit him with everything we had,” Auton said. “Either we were going to kill this guy, or we were going to make him get out.”

Soldiers tossed five fragmentation grenades and five flash bangs at the opening, and then blasted it with more than 1,100 rounds of 5.56 mm ammunition.

But he stayed hunkered down with a submachine gun and a Kalashnikov. An explosive ordnance disposal team was called in to settle the matter. They detonated two blocks of C-4, collapsing half the roof.

“Anybody in that part of the building should have been dead,” Auton said.

Then soldiers noticed a pile of trash on a second story ledge. Pvt. Victor Flores, 21, of Phoenix, Ariz., moved the trash and found another heavily fortified hole. McCusker figured someone had to go inside and confirm whether the insurgent was dead.

“At that point the guys had been through a lot and I didn’t feel too good about telling them to go in that hole,” he said.

McCusker armed himself with a flashlight and a 9 mm pistol and squeezed himself into the opening. Instead of a dead body, he found the barrel of a gun.

“Bullets went right by my face, 10 or 12 rounds,” McCusker said. The rounds ricocheted off the walls of the hiding space, peppering his face with concrete. McCusker tumbled out the hole onto the ground, his face bleeding.

“The guys thought I was shot — I thought I was shot,” he said.

Lying on the ground, McCusker looked up at one of his men.

“Am I shot?” he asked. The lieutenant responded that he had blood on his face, but it didn’t look like he had been hit.

Auton and two others emptied a magazine each into the opening.

“You’d think he’d be dead after that, but we kept seeing his hand move,” Auton said. “You could see his weapon. Every time we saw it move we gave him more rounds. [That’s when] EOD came back into play.”

This time the explosives technicians used four blocks of C-4, demolishing the entire second floor.

“The dude, unbelievably, he sits up. Right in the rubble — like Wile E. Coyote,” McCusker said.

The insurgent, who was still clutching his submachine gun, did not see 2nd Platoon soldiers approaching him from behind. They fired roughly 10 to 20 rounds more at him.

The insurgent slumped and appeared to be dead, but now his cell phone was ringing. Fearing the hiding spot might be rigged with a bomb, and due to the severe damage to the building, McCusker’s men cleared the area. The EOD team sent in a remote control robot with a camera.

“They told us they could still see him breathing on the camera,” McCusker said. Worried the insurgent might still trigger an explosion or fire at them again, an engineer dispatched him with a final gunshot to the head.

A few hours later, as soldiers recounted the incident, McCusker said he would handle the situation differently in the future. While he wanted to prevent damage to surrounding buildings — something he managed to do — he said he wouldn’t worry about that in the future.

“We probably should have shot a main gun round in there,” McCusker said. “We’re not crawling into any holes with a flashlight and a nine mil again.”

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