HAQLANIYAH, Iraq – Some 1,000 U.S. Marines and Iraqi troops swept into the western town of Haqlaniyah early Friday morning, hunting for insurgents just south of an area where 20 Marines were killed this week.

Rumbling in with tanks, Humvees and amphibious assault vehicles – and accompanied by fighter jets and helicopter gunships – Marines from the 3rd battalion of the 2nd Marine Regiment pushed north along the western bank of the Euphrates River valley into the town as a company from the 25th Regiment shadowed its movements on the eastern flank of the river.

Military officials believe the area is a transit point for foreign fighters moving toward Baghdad and the rest of the country. Locking down the area is strategically important, but equally important is for Iraqis to see the United States reassert control in the face of two insurgent successes this week, said Lt. Col. Tim Mundy, the 3-2 battalion commander.

“The foreign fighters seem to believe that they can operate in some areas with impunity,” said Mundy, 40, of Waynesville, N.C. “It’s symbolically important that we do show up.”

A few miles to the north of Haqlaniyah was Haditha, where a bloody ambush killed six Marines on foot patrol Monday – including one whose corpse was reportedly videotaped by insurgents – and a powerful roadside bomb killed 14 on Wednesday.

Marines said Friday’s operation, dubbed Quick Strike, would include Haditha. The first aim appeared to be to corner insurgents who may have fled from there to Haqlaniyah. Tanks and troops blocked routes on both sides of the river and to the south. To the north waited another contingent of Marines based at the imposing Haditha dam.

By the end of the day, it was unclear how many insurgents were killed in the onslaught. One Marine was wounded when a rocket-propelled grenade round roared by and took off part of a finger.

Marines said they found stacks of insurgent handbills in town celebrating the ambush and roadside-bomb killings; some were tacked to telephone poles, others were on a mosque door.

Though the Marines in Haqlaniyah didn’t discuss the deaths of their comrades earlier this week, they plainly felt a sense of urgency.

Talking to a truckload of troops, sitting in the predawn darkness in a desert staging area Friday morning, Sgt. Marcio Vargas Estrada made the point in plain language to the men of his squad from 3-2’s Lima Company.

“If somebody shoots at you, you waste the m———–,” said Estrada, 32, of Kearny, N.J. “When you go back to Camp Lejeune (in North Carolina), these will be the good old days, when you brought … death and destruction to – what the f— is this place called?”

A Marine answered in the darkness: “Haqlaniyah.”

Estrada continued: “Haqlaniyah, yeah, that. And then we will take death and destruction to Haditha. Hopefully, we’ll stay until December so we can bring death and destruction to half of f—— Iraq.”

The flatbed truck erupted in a storm of “Hoo-ahs.”

Lima Company rumbled toward town at 5:30 a.m.

At 6:04 a.m., Sgt. Maj. Arthur Mennig, riding in the open air of the truck and listening to the radio, turned to the side and muttered, “We’ve already had a vehicle hit a mine.”

A few minutes later came an explosion ahead – a roadside bomb.

Still another call came over the radio. Mennig shook his head.

“IED (roadside bomb) on route Japan,” said Mennig, 39, of Utica, N.Y. “It’s going to be a long day.”

At one of the first houses they raided, Mennig pushed a man against the wall, yelling, “Don’t you f—— look at me.”

Insurgent mortars crashed outside. Mennig continued patting the man down. The hiss and boom of a nearby rocket-propelled grenade rang out.

Mennig ran to the front yard, where Staff Sgt. James McCarver crouched, scanning the horizon over nearby homes.

“How much do you want to bet that fire is coming from the mosque?” Mennig said.

AK-47 fire rattled in the distance.

“I guarantee you that’s where the sniper round that went over my vehicle came from,” said McCarver, 30, of Houston.

Two more mortars fell. The limbs of the date trees in the yard shook.

“That’s getting f—— close,” said Mennig, a stocky Marine who keeps his head shaved bald.

An American Mark-19 gun, an automatic grenade launcher, went boom-boom-boom a few blocks away, and then an American .50-caliber machine gun followed with its angry staccato.

Mennig grinned.

By noon, at least two 500-pound bombs had been called in on the borders of the town. The calls were followed, less than an hour later, by what looked to be F-18s strafing the ground with cannon fire. Cobra attack helicopters zoomed across the rooftops of the stone and clay houses as smoke rose from mortar hits.

While the insurgent shelling landed, and heavy U.S. armament replied, Mennig and his men walked through 100-plus-degree heat, searching for traces of their enemy’s base. Climbing walls, scrambling up foothills and hiking for hours under the relentless sun, the Marines were drenched in sweat, their faces marked by rings of dirt. A temporary intravenous station was set up for those suffering from sunstroke.


The Marines kicked in one door after the next, yelling for an interpreter when they came across “MAMS” – military aged males.

At one house they found Munaf Khalaf, a former Iraqi national guard sergeant.

“I quit because the insurgents threatened me,” Khalaf said.

And where are the insurgents, Mennig asked. They drive through the market in town, packed into three or four cars at a time, Khalaf said.

But where are they today?

“They all fled town,” Khalaf said.

Mennig thought it over a moment.

“Then who,” he asked, “is shooting at my men?”

As night fell, more mortars came.

The Marines later said they found two adjacent buildings with wires running between the structures. Connected to the wires were 155mm artillery rounds scattered throughout the buildings. The buildings were later destroyed.

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