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The Grim Reaper, Riding a Firetruck in Iraq

"Second platoon all accounted for."

"Third platoon all accounted for."

"Fourth platoon all accounted for."

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)

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"Thank you, Lord," Diorio whispered to himself.

"They were definitely close enough to cause a lot of damage," he said. "It was where they detonated it: It was a miracle. If I had to pick a place for them to detonate a firetruck full of explosives, if I had to pick one, I would have picked that place."

'Welcome to Iraq'

The vehicle exploded near the "Welcome to Iraq" mural, which absorbed some of the blast. So did a huge corrugated metal overhang that had provided shade for vehicles waiting in line at the border. It was obliterated, along with a low-slung blue-and-white building that also took some of the blast.

Only three Marines were wounded, none seriously. A piece of shrapnel pierced Butler's plastic goggles but did not penetrate the helmet they were attached to.

First Sgt. Don Brazeal, 39, of Riviera Beach, Md., was inside the company command post when the firetruck exploded. He had also feared the worst and rushed out to the base perimeter. "It's kind of a parental instinct that took over," he said. "A lot of these guys are young enough to be my sons. Right away I had a mental picture that my kids were not in a good way."

Brazeal arrived at Post 8 to find Fink firing at about a dozen insurgents. They were shielded by a wall on the other side of the road.

Brazeal grabbed a rocket launcher and climbed atop a dirt barrier, exposing himself to enemy fire. He fired the rocket at the wall. Fink then did the same. Then the shooting stopped, they said.

For nearly an hour, mortars and RPGs -- Marines estimated as many as 30 -- pelted the base. The unit summoned F-18 fighter jets and Cobra helicopter gunships; the Cobras fired machine guns and Hellfire missiles at what an after-action report described as vehicles transporting weapons. The small-arms fire around the base subsided at 9:30 a.m. but continued sporadically for nearly 10 hours.

The Marines said 19 insurgents were killed and 15 were wounded during 24 hours of fighting. An unknown number of civilians were also reported killed.

This week, the city remained tense. The Marines believed they had scored a decisive victory, tempered only by the realization that they faced an adversary perhaps more sophisticated than they had known.

"These guys knew what they were doing," said Lt. Ronnie Choe, 25, of Los Angeles, the battalion's assistant intelligence officer. "These weren't just random guys who decided: Hey let's do something."

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