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But the next day begins with a blistering fire fight. With the insurgents sniping at the soldiers on the front lines, the U.S. troops blast the area with cannon fire, obliterating nearby shops and houses from where gunmen had been shooting just moments before. The fighting is so close, you could throw rocks and hit the man trying to kill you. Buildings erupt in smoke and flames. F-16 fighter jets roar overhead. "We got people moving around on rooftops in the vicinity of the mosque," the Green Beret team sergeant reports on radio. Six Hellfire missiles come barreling in, detonating 80 yards away and showering rubble onto the troops' helmets. Pulling out, the Renegade Troop Apache pilot calls merrily to the team sergeant on the ground, "Stay safe, and kill some bad guys."
The insurgents withdraw, only to resurface in a flanking movement from the west, trying to snipe at Green Berets looking to the east, sparking another long fire fight. When things quiet down, it isn't for long. Although the U.S. inflicts heavy punishment on al-Zarqawi's men, the Americans also absorb losses. During a raid by Delta Force operators of Task Force 145 in western Tall 'Afar, insurgents put up fierce resistance at a house believed to be sheltering one of the city's top al-Qaeda operatives. Eight Delta men are wounded, two so seriously that an AC-130 Spectre gunship has to give a medevac covering fire to get the wounded to a combat-hospital operating theater in time to save them. Elsewhere, an improvised explosive device detonates under a Bradley fighting vehicle, blowing off its lid and killing a young medic who, though based in the rear, had volunteered to enter the fighting fray. A few feet forward, the toll would have been worse, killing the Bradley commander and his gunner. "This is a war of inches," says a shaken U.S. officer.
Across Iraq, the prize for the U.S. remains a clear-cut outcome, some indication that the U.S. is doing anything more than playing whack-a-mole with the insurgents. In Tall 'Afar, the U.S. and Iraqi troops awake on the morning of Sept. 6 to the sound of messages being broadcast over loudspeakers instructing civilians to leave. At mid-morning, families begin to emerge across Route Barracuda waving sad little white flags. As a family shuffles past, a Green Beret weapons sergeant bellows for them to be stopped. "Who's that red-headed guy?" he asks. The men are sifted out, five identified as suspicious. Flashes of defiance and anger raise suspicions. "Hey, flex-cuff 'em," orders a Green Beret. Chemical swabs read positive for explosives on two of the men. Masked informants identify three--all brothers--as snipers, the other two as a rocket-propelled-grenade team. Across the battlefield, insurgents attempting to slip out of Sarai mix with civilians. Five dressed as women are snared, one with fake breasts. Others force children to hold their hands as though they are family. Some are caught; others are not. An intelligence officer says al-Qaeda is slipping to the east and behind them to the south, and "somehow--we don't know how"--cutting through the screen line to deploy to the west.