Do you see 'em?" screams a gunner as he spots al-Qaeda fighters dart in front of him. "Just kill people to the north," a sergeant bellows. "Light him up," cries another soldier as a gunman approaches. On Nov. 17, even as Representative John Murtha was stirring debate on Capitol Hill by calling for an immediate redeployment of U.S. troops, the young soldiers of Blue Platoon were amid a citywide battle that revealed just how hard it will be to pull U.S. troops out soon.
Throughout the day, members of Blue Platoon had been hunkered down in their battle-scarred observation post (dubbed "Hotel") in Ramadi, sniping at reconnaissance units. Then, four hours before Murtha spoke, al-Qaeda let loose an attack on all five American outposts in the city--an assault that a hardened Army sniper dubbed a mini--Tet offensive, referring to the coordinated military actions the Viet Cong launched across South Vietnam one fateful day in 1968.
With the mini-Tet raging, more than 50 rebels lobbed mortars and fired rocket-propelled grenades at the U.S. bases before they closed in under cover of machine-gun fire from virtually 360°. By the end, about the time Murtha wrapped up his press conference in Washington, coalition forces had stormed past dead insurgents to retake Ramadi's central mosque.
But this is still a city the insurgents can claim they own. Although a U.S. Army brigade hunts them daily, the rebels move freely among a supportive populace. U.S. troops are despised here. The insurgents are embraced. "They are the people we see every day who give us a loaf of bread on a patrol, the people we will be fighting that night," says Lieut. Colonel Robert Roggeman, whose 2-69 Armored Regiment is battling to control the eastern part of this city of 400,000.
Pentagon officials routinely characterize anti-insurgent operations around Iraq as great victories. But just as Operation Steel Curtain, targeting insurgents in towns near the Syrian border, wound down, fighters loyal to al-Qaeda's top man in Iraq, Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, popped up in Ramadi. The insurgents' ability to preserve and regenerate their forces is a hallmark of the war. The official American tally for the Nov. 17 battle in Ramadi: 33 insurgents killed, 1 Marine slightly wounded. But Blue Platoon knows it has not delivered a knockout punch.
Since July, 1 in 3 platoon members has been killed or hurt. "All of my squad leaders and section leaders have been wounded," says the platoon leader, 2nd Lieut. Joe Walker, a South Carolinian who volunteered to fight after 9/11. "For a while, our unit was fighting at less than 70%, and we're still below 60% on our vehicles--so many Bradleys have been blown up."
For weeks the 2-69, an entire armored battalion, was cut off from other American forces. The roads in and out of its base were saturated with improvised explosive devices, says Captain Chas Cannon. At one stage, there were 100 explosions a week. "You expected to get hit ... possibly several times," says Cannon. The roads were closed; some food was rationed. But with aggressive combat operations, sniper assaults and the building of precarious outposts, the 2-69 has regained control of the city's main artery, "Route Michigan," the troops' lifeline. Now they are struggling to keep it open. "Anyone who thinks [Iraq] is going to be won a year from now is mistaken," says brigade commander Colonel John Gronski.