The troops call it Route Barracuda, a patch of terrorist territory in the northern Iraqi town of Tall 'Afar, where thousands of U.S. and Iraqi forces have converged for the biggest battle in nearly a year. On this sweaty September afternoon, the neighborhood is living up to its name. A squad of U.S. commandos enters an abandoned house and clambers up to the roof. The 2-foot lip doesn't give much cover from the bullets raining down on them from insurgent gunmen firing from a building 200 yards to the north. Rounds flying at supersonic speed crack inches from the troops' ears. "Get down, goddammit," a Green Beret hollers to his Iraqi counterparts. On their bellies, two weapons sergeants start loading an 84-mm M-3 antitank recoilless rifle. "They got guns," says a commando shouldering a rocket launcher. "Let's f_______ do this." He kneels, exposing himself without any choice, takes aim and fires. Whump. The top of the insurgents' building blossoms black smoke. Over the cacophony of machine-gun fire and explosions, the leader of the commando team bellows to his men that the insurgents have spotted them. "Displace, displace--they got our position!" he yells, as the troops vacate the open rooftop in a stooped sprint.
The offensive in Tall 'Afar, which wound down last week, was this year's Fallujah--a mass assault involving 7,000 U.S. and Iraqi soldiers and hundreds of Bradleys, battle tanks, artillery pieces, all combined with AC-130 Spectre gunships, F-16 fighter jets and attack helicopters. Unlike the Fallujah battle, Tall 'Afar raged mostly unseen, with accounts of the fighting limited largely to the reports of U.S. and Iraqi officials in Baghdad, who declared that the onslaught had succeeded in driving out the bands of rebels--local units commanded by al-Qaeda kingpin Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi--from their latest safe haven. But almost as soon as the offensive ended, the cycle of mayhem started anew: two days after the capture of al-Qaeda's stronghold in Tall 'Afar, al-Zarqawi unleashed a retaliatory wave of 11 suicide bombings in Baghdad, killing more than 150 people in the deadliest day of attacks in the capital since the start of the war. Iraq's Defense Minister, Sadoun Dulaimi, responded to the attacks by telling reporters, "I think what is happening is the last breath of the terrorists"--an assessment that even some U.S. commanders found unduly upbeat after yet another bloody week. "We have not broken the back of the insurgency," says a high-ranking U.S. officer. "The insurgency is like a cell-phone system. You shut down one node, another somewhere else comes online to replace it."