Dawn in Fallujah, and the men of the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines' Easy Company, part of the 1st U.S. Marine Expeditionary Force, are withdrawing under fire. At 4:30 that morning, 150 Marines had moved into the southern edge of the city to destroy two bunkers that insurgents were using to fire on their positions. Easy's Third Platoon moved in to inspect one of the buildings, which had been hit the day before by a 500-lb. bomb. Platoon Commander 2nd Lieut. Ilario Pantano reported back that they had found gun emplacements and binoculars and that the building was still usable by insurgents. Another Marine later recalled the smell of death. Tank fire would finish the house off. Then, to their north, they spotted the movement of three or four men. Some of them appeared to be carrying guns.
The Marines aren't taking chances. Two days earlier, seven Marines were wounded in an ambush on this road. The Marines sprint away from the building as the first tank round thunders in. Soon after they trot past the rest of the company, the whole group starts to take fire. "I can hear yelling and talking to the north," a Marine tells Captain Bradley Weston, the company's commanding officer. A bunch of Marines jump up and fire back in the general direction of the noise. Others lay down white phosphorus to mark the area where the insurgents' fire seems to have come from. A tank pumps in more tracer. From the roof of an unfinished building, Marines blast the target with machine guns, providing protective cover. The rest of the Marines pull back, running across a field and over to bushes, urged on by yelling noncommissioned officers (NCOs). They expect the insurgents to harass them all the way back to their base. One young man falls and lies prone on the ground, his head pressed down as if afraid something might hit him. His hands shake uncontrollably. Chachi, a member of Easy Company's intelligence unit who asks to be identified only by his nickname, turns to me as we run for cover. "Having fun?" he asks, making clear that he is. "This is what it's all about."
From afar, the fighting in and around Fallujah since the Marines laid siege to the city a month ago appears to be a series of brief skirmishes and sporadic gunfights. But it doesn't look that way to anyone who spent time on the ground with the Marines of Easy Company. The Marines are at war with a well-organized and relentless enemy. A cease-fire was theoretically in effect last week as Marine commanders and local leaders attempted to reach a deal that would forestall a potentially bloody assault on the city. The insurgents routinely broke the truce, lobbing mortars and rockets at the Marines' positions from every direction. The men of Easy Company were not enthusiastic about the truce either: twice last week they thought they were on the verge of attacking the city, only to be told to stand down. U.S. commanders last Friday announced that a new, 1,100-man Iraqi force, led by a former general in Saddam Hussein's army with a Republican Guard background, was assuming responsibility for disarming the estimated 2,000 insurgents believed to be still holed up in Fallujah.