FALLUJAH, Iraq -- The Marines jumped out of their armored vehicles on a quiet dirt road in the center of this battle-torn city, with mounds of crumbled bricks, twisted metal and debris on both sides.
Within minutes, the patrol from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, Weapons Company was surrounded by dozens of hands pulling at their arms and reaching for their pockets.
A store in Fallujah is surrounded by rubble left by the U.S.-led offensive against insurgents in the city in November.
(Jackie Spinner -- The Washington Post)
"Mister, mister," little voices chirped, as a swelling group of 20 children pushed each other out of the way and called out for pieces of chocolate. The older, savvier ones grabbed a baby, borrowing one from a stranger if they had to, held it up and said, "Baby, baby," in English, an effort to get more candy from the Combined Anti-Armored Team.
Lance Cpl. Richard Setterstrom, a piece of shrapnel still in his leg from a Dec. 12 battle with insurgents, moved beyond the children and past badly damaged houses, each one marked with a red "X" to indicate that it had been cleared of weapons.
"It's weird walking by a house that we burned and seeing a family in it now," said Setterstrom, 19, of Butte, Mont.
"See that house?" said Lance Cpl. Michael Catalano, 19, of Lafayette, Colo., pointing across a large puddle of rainwater and sewage to a brown, two-story structure, its sides blackened from smoke. "A Marine died there."
For these Marines, the relative ease with which they walked through Fallujah one day last week was nearly as jarring as the sudden blasts of gunfire that greeted them during the U.S.-led offensive to retake the city from insurgents in early November. Although Marine commanders declared the battle over about a week after ground forces entered the city, deadly clashes continued through most of December.
The commanders acknowledge that they did not wipe out the insurgents in the assault, the largest military operation since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. But they say the insurgency is in check and the city is under the control of U.S. and Iraqi security forces.
"It's not over," said Col. Michael A. Shupp, commander of the 1st Marine Regiment. "There are a lot of bad guys out there, but we're not giving up."
Shupp said the greatest assets for the Marines fighting the insurgents are the residents, many of whom are cooperating by reporting the locations of weapons caches and suspects.
"The word on the street is that the residents don't want the insurgents in their town," Shupp said. "They only brought death and destruction."
Col. Dan Wilson, operations officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which is responsible for controlling restive Anbar province in western Iraq, said it was impossible to estimate how many insurgents remained in Fallujah. But he said they were there, some of them hiding among the returning civilians and others who never left.
The last major clash in the city took place on Dec. 23. Three Marines were killed; 14 others were wounded. Since then, Wilson said, security forces have mostly engaged in small-arms fire with the insurgents.
"They are onesies and twosies," he said. "They take a shot off, and usually it's ineffective small-arms fire. They have difficulty moving. Right now we really consider Fallujah the safest city in Anbar province and maybe in all of Iraq."