2005: Dexter Filkins, The New York Times
3/29/2005
ASNE Staff
Award for Deadline News Reporting
Tuesday, March 29, 2005
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Deadline News Reporting


Dexter Filkins

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The Conflict in Iraq

The Streets Urban Warfare Deals Harsh Challenge to Troops

November 9, 2004

FALLUJA, Iraq -- The two marines were pinned down on a roof on Monday, pressing themselves against a low, crumbling wall as insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades at them from a building near the middle of town.

Hours before, they had clambered over a railroad embankment -- a berm, to the engineering-minded -- and started their advance into this rebel-held city.

Commanders called in artillery fire on the building where the grenades were emerging, their tails spitting and glowing like sparklers across the sky. But the artillery only flattened the building next door to the one occupied by the insurgents.

''This is crazy,'' one of the marines said. ''Yeah,'' his buddy said, ''and we've only taken one house.''

This is urban warfare, where the technological advantages of the American military can be nullified, at least for a few terrifying hours, by a few determined fighters in a warehouse or an abandoned home.

During the night, the insurgents fired off brilliant red and blue flares, blinding the Americans' sensitive night-vision equipment, and slipped quickly from house to house in hopes of confusing the artillery spotters.

For hours, they succeeded, pinning down perhaps 150 marines led by Capt. Read Omohundro, a strapping graduate of Texas A&M who has a habit of walking around upright during bursts of mortar and grenade fire while everyone else is hugging an outcropping of concrete.

Even the captain concedes that this is nothing like a fight in the open desert, where the Americans are always fated to win, quickly. ''The challenge is that the battlefield is three-dimensional,'' he said. ''Not only do you have to look in front of you and behind you, but also above you and below you, even subterranean.''

This night would become a textbook illustration of those complexities. Captain Omohundro's unit started rolling toward the berm in armored personnel carriers from an encampment about a mile north about 7 p.m. He was supposed to meet up there with another outfit, but it had gotten lost.

Finally he found it, and his men started their part of the invasion by firing a 200-yard cord containing 1,800 pounds of explosive southward from the berm, toward downtown Falluja. The marines worried that their way into the city had been mined. But when the charge exploded, it also set off any mines in a narrow path around it.

That tactic worked, but when the marines climbed the berm in pitch blackness and went over, they discovered rocky ground with rusty junk littering the way -- a typical railroad district on the edge of town. They worked their way toward their first objectives, a small traffic circle, and beyond that, the first buildings of the city.

But the marines were getting shelled even before they went over the berm. The area exploded with sporadic gunfire, rocket-propelled grenade rounds and mortars. The advance bogged down as spotters tried to locate pockets of insurgents and wipe them out with the big guns.

For a time, this frightening urban battlefield became a pulsing cacophony of strange and deadly sounds. The mosques in the city broadcast calls to jihad through their speakers. F-18's fired 3,000 rounds a minute in bursts that sounded oddly like burps. AC-130 gunships droned overhead, their big cannons going thunk, thunk as they found targets.

Perhaps strangest of all, the American troops brought in their own ''psyops'' trucks -- for psychological operations -- and blared sounds that created a nightmarish duet with the mosques: old AC/DC songs, something that sounded like a sonar ping, the cavalry charge.

Captain Omohundro did not like sitting still in this theater of doom, and for good reason. ''My biggest fear is staying in the same place for too long,'' he said. ''Then they'll pinpoint us and start firing.''

Eventually the artillery found the house that had been spitting the grenades and flattened that one, too. An AC-130 passed overhead but decided that the threat had been annihilated along with the building.

Then the shooting started again, from some other window among the cracked streets and twisted alleyways of Falluja.


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The Insurgents: Hard Lesson: 150 Marines Face 1 Sniper

November 11, 2004

FALLUJA, Iraq -- American marines called in two airstrikes on the pair of dingy three-story buildings squatting along Highway 10 on Wednesday, dropping 500-pound bombs each time. They fired 35 or so 155-millimeter artillery shells, 10 shots from the muzzles of Abrams tanks and perhaps 30,000 rounds from their automatic rifles. The building was a smoking ruin.

But the sniper kept shooting.

He -- or they, because no one can count the flitting shadows in this place -- kept 150 marines pinned down for the better part of a day. It was a lesson on the nature of the enemy in this hellish warren of rubble-strewn streets. Not all of the insurgents are holy warriors looking for martyrdom. At least a few are highly trained killers who do their job with cold precision and know how to survive.

''The idea is, he just sits up there and eats a sandwich,'' said Lt. Andy Eckert, ''and we go crazy trying to find him.''

The contest is a deadly one, and two marines in Company B, First Battalion, Eighth Regiment of the First Marine Expeditionary Force have been killed by snipers in the past two days as the unit advanced just half a mile southward to Highway 10 from a mosque they had taken on Tuesday.

Despite the world-shaking blasts of weaponry as the Americans try to root out the snipers, this is also a contest of wills in which the tension rises to a level that seems unbearable, and then rises again. Marine snipers sit, as motionless as blue herons, for 30 minutes and stare with crazed intensity into the oversized scopes on their guns. If so much as a penumbra brushes across a windowsill, they open up.

With the troops' senses tuned to a high pitch, mundane events become extraordinary. During one bombing, a blue-and-yellow parakeet flew up to a roof of a captured building and fluttered about in tight circles before perching on a slumping power line, to the amazement of the marines assembled there.

On another occasion, the snipers tensed when they heard movement in the direction of a smoldering building. A cat sauntered out, unconcerned with anything but making its rounds in the neighborhood.

''Can I shoot it, sir?'' a sniper asked an officer.

''Absolutely not,'' came the reply.

This day started at about 8 a.m., when the marines left the building where they had been sleeping and headed south toward Highway 10, which runs from east to west and roughly bisects the town. At the corner of Highway 10 and Thurthar, the street they were moving along, was a headquarters building for the Iraqi National Guard that had been taken over by insurgents.

Almost immediately, they came under fire from a sniper in the minaret of a mosque just south of them. Someone in a three-story residential building farther down the street also opened up. The marines made 50-yard dashes and dived for cover, but one of them was cut down, killed on the spot. It was unclear what direction the fatal bullet had come from.

''I don't know who it was,'' Lt. Steven Berch, leader of the fallen marine's platoon, said of the attacker, ''but he was very well trained.''

After two hours of bombardment, the sniper at that mosque ceased firing. But just around the corner at the famous blue-domed Khulafah Al Rashid mosque, another sniper was pinning down marines, and airstrikes were called in on it, too. The issue of striking at mosques is so sensitive in the Arab world that the American military later issued a statement saying that the strike on the Khulafah mosque was unavoidable and that precision munitions merely knocked down a minaret.

By noon, the marines had worked their way down to the national guard building, still taking fire from the sniper, or snipers, on the other side of Main Street. Inside was a sign in Arabic that said: ''Long live the mujahedeen.'' Soon the marines had spray-painted another sign over it: ''Long live the muj killers.''

But for the next five hours, they could not kill whoever was running from window to window and firing at them from the other side of Main Street, despite the expenditure of enormous amounts of ammunition.

''We're not able to see the muzzle flashes,'' said Capt. Read Omohundro, the company commander. ''As a result,'' he said, ''we end up expending a lot of ammunition trying to get the snipers.''

At one point, they thought that they had a bead on someone running back and forth between the two buildings. Then Capt. Christopher Spears exclaimed: ''He's on a bike!''

And somehow, through a volley of gunfire, whoever it was got away.

At 5 p.m., the marines finally crossed Highway 10 and searched the smoking remains of the two buildings. At 5:30 p.m., a sniper opened up on them.


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The Marines Black Flags are Deadly Signals as Cornered Rebels Fight Back

November 12, 2004

FALLUJA, Iraq -- The stars began to glimmer through a wan yellow-gray sunset over Falluja on Thursday evening. The floury dust in the air and a skyline of broken minarets and smashed buildings combined for the only genuine postcard image this country has to offer for now.

Sitting on a third-story roof, Staff Sgt. Eric Brown, his lip bleeding, peered through the scope of his rifle into the haze. Moments before, a lone bullet had whizzed past his face and smashed a window behind him. ''God, I hate this place, the way the sun sets,'' Sergeant Brown said.

Sgt. Sam Williams said, ''I wish I could see down the street.''

But these marines did see a black flag pop up all at once above a water tower about 100 yards away, then a second flag somewhere in the gloaming above a rooftop. And the shots began, in a wave this time, as men bobbed and weaved through alleyways and sprinted across the street. ''He's in the road, he's in the road, shoot him!'' Sergeant Brown shouted. ''Black shirt!'' someone else yelled. ''Due south!''

The flags are the insurgents' answer to two-way radios, their way of massing the troops and -- in a tactic that goes back at least as far as Napoleon -- concentrating fire on an enemy. Set against radio waves, the flags have one distinct advantage: they are terrifying.

The insurgents are coordinating their attacks at a time when they have nowhere left to run. American forces have pushed south of Highway 10, the boulevard that runs east to west and approximately bisects Falluja. American intelligence officers believe that many of the insurgents have retreated as far as the Shuhada, a relatively modern residential area that is the southernmost neighborhood in Falluja.

But beyond Shuhada is only the open desert, patrolled by the United States Army. So the insurgents are turning and fighting. And at night, they are setting up deadly ambushes in the moonless pitch blackness of Falluja's labyrinthine streets.

Going straight up the gut in the center of the American advance on Thursday was Bravo Company, First Battalion, Eighth Regiment of the First Marine Expeditionary Force. Those marines, including Sergeants Brown and Williams, started their day by getting mortared in a building they had captured at Highway 10 and Thurthar Street.

The building's windows were blown out. Parts of the ceiling had collapsed. The mortars drew closer and closer and then stopped, as if the insurgents were temporarily short of ammo. ''I thought, 'This is it,''' said Senior Corpsman Kevin Markley.

At about 2 p.m., the company walked 100 yards east along the highway, then turned south into the Sinai neighborhood, with its car garages and fix-it shops as well as concealed weapons caches and bomb-making factories.

Immediately, shooting broke out, pinning down the marines for an hour. Finally they moved south to a mosque with the stub of a blasted minaret. An armored vehicle drove up from the rear and dropped its hatch. Out walked a group of blinking, disoriented Iraqi national guardsmen. They had been brought in only to search mosques.

Meantime, the marines went to the rooftop, saw the flags and got into a firefight. It was silenced when they called in a 500-pound bomb from above onto a house where some of the insurgents had concentrated. The strike was so close that the marines had to leave the roof or risk being killed by shrapnel.

The Iraqi guardsmen left the mosque and trooped back into the vehicle, which drove off. Soon the marines were headed south again, through a narrow alley between deserted houses.

''Enemy personnel approaching your position in white vehicle with RPG's,'' someone said over a radio, referring to rocket-propelled grenades. A few seconds later, the same voice said: ''More enemy personnel approaching your position from the south.''

The alley exploded with gunfire and RPG rounds. Somehow the company commander, Capt. Read Omohundro, got two tanks in place to fire down the alley. They let loose with a volley and a building crumbled.

Captain Omohundro turned to a lieutenant and said, ''Are they dead?''

''They must be, sir,'' came the reply.

But the insurgents had gotten off an RPG round and disabled one tank; the other tank mysteriously stopped working as well.

The company had moved 500 yards south. They regrouped in the pitch blackness and pushed on at about 11:30 p.m. without the tanks, trying to keep up with the rest of the front, but after moving 25 feet they were attacked again in what appeared to be a well-organized ambush.

Two more tanks came in, but one had a problem with its global-positioning system unit. There was an hour's delay. The 50 or so men of the First Platoon, which had taken casualties, started bickering. Then they moved forward, behind the tanks.

At 1:30 a.m., now roughly 700 yards south of Highway 10, they stopped and entered a house, intending to find a place to sleep. There was a huge boom inside. ''Oh no! Oh no!'' someone shouted. ''My leg!'' someone else screamed. ''My leg!''

They looked further around the house and found tunnels underneath. They retreated and a tank fired rounds into the house, which caught fire.

They looked for another place to sleep.

Stories copyright 2004 The New York Times. Reprinted with permission.

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