HUSAYBAH, Iraq -- Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Butler shook himself from the rubble of a suicide truck bombing. He staggered to the ledge of his three-story guard tower and stared into a cloud of white smoke.
Butler, 21, of Altoona, Pa., was temporarily deafened by the blast, but he recalled what came next with cinematic clarity. The white smoke parted to reveal a clean red fire engine. It sped past a mural bidding travelers "Goodbye From Free Iraq" and hurtled directly toward Butler, who shot at the fire engine until it exploded about 40 yards away from him.
A Marine inspects rubble caused by suicide bombings last week that were part of a coordinated insurgent attack on a Marine base in western Iraq.
(Steve Fainaru -- The Washington Post)
This true-life nightmare occurred on Monday last week. The attack on this remote Marine outpost abutting the Syrian border caused only minor injuries, but it signaled a dramatic change in the methods of the insurgents, who have staged mostly guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks against the U.S. military for two years.
In interviews and in after-action reports, Marines who successfully defended the base that morning described a sophisticated assault that involved 50 to 100 insurgents.
The insurgents distracted Marine guards with well-aimed mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, then launched three successive suicide bombing strikes in an attempt to blow up the base and overrun it. The fire engine had a driver, a spotter and a bulletproof windshield, and was packed with dozens of propane tanks filled with explosives. The blast rained jagged red shrapnel for more than a minute, and unhinged doors and cracked the foundation of buildings well inside the Marine base.
The attack "demonstrates an extremely mature and capable insurgency," said Maj. John Reed, executive officer for the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, which commands U.S. troops here. "It showed its ability to mass a very complex attack very quickly."
The attack, along with a similar assault on April 2 against the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in which 44 American soldiers were wounded, presents a new challenge for the U.S. military, which is seeking to wear down the insurgency before transferring security responsibilities to U.S.-trained Iraqi forces. American commanders have expressed optimism that the insurgents, while far from defeated, have been significantly degraded as a fighting force; they said attacks have been less frequent and less effective since Iraq's Jan. 30 elections.
The number of attacks each day in cities such as Baghdad and Mosul has dropped by as much as 50 percent. Until recently, those attacks had largely been with roadside bombs and suicide car bombs aimed at platoons of U.S. military vehicles that conduct hundreds of patrols each day.
U.S. commanders said they interpreted the attack here as a desperate attempt by insurgents to reenergize the conflict. "I think they're losing, so they're looking at the big attacks to gain some momentum back," said Marine Capt. Frank Diorio, commander of India Company at Camp Gannon, the Marine base near the city of Qaim on the border with Syria. "I give them credit it for it; they're looking for a big score. We're going to see this a lot more. But now we know so we can address it."
Husaybah is a dusty smuggling hub in the barren reaches of western Iraq, a desert moonscape of dirt and rocks, its visibility frequently obscured by sandstorms. Camp Gannon is situated in the city's northwest corner.
The base's northern perimeter is the Syrian border, marked by a 10-foot-tall barrier of sand bags and razor wire. To the south and east are low-slung concrete houses and unpaved streets, neighborhoods so hostile the Marines cannot venture into the city without being attacked. The austere base is shelled so frequently the Marines never leave their barracks without helmets and armored vests, even when visiting the urinals -- mortar tubes hammered into the ground.
The battle here began around 8:15 a.m., shortly after India Company's 2nd Platoon set up for guard duty on the base's eastern perimeter. Four mortar rounds overshot the base and landed about 300 yards inside Syrian territory, said Cpl. Roy Mitros, the senior Marine on guard, who climbed into a tower to register where they landed.
Inside Post 8, a bunker on the southeast corner of the base, Lance Cpl. Joe Lampe, 22, of Lacey Township, N.J., and Cpl. Anthony Fink, 21, of Columbus, Ohio, began to receive reports that other guard positions were taking sporadic fire. Then, at 8:25 a.m., a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into their bunker.
Lampe and Fink were unharmed, but the bunker filled with dust from dozens of protective sandbags. "You couldn't see like an inch in front of us," Lampe said. "It's like it just went 'whoof,' and then it was just dust collapsing all around us."