In the Field

'They Came Here to Die'

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 11, 2005

JARAMI, Iraq, May 10 -- Screaming "Allahu Akbar'' to the end, the foreign fighters lay on their backs in a narrow crawl space under a house and blasted their machine guns up through the concrete floor with bullets designed to penetrate tanks. They fired at U.S. Marines, driving back wave after wave as the Americans tried to retrieve a fallen comrade.

Through Sunday night and into Monday morning, the foreign fighters battled on, their screaming voices gradually fading to just one. In the end, it took five Marine assaults, grenades, a tank firing bunker-busting artillery rounds, 500-pound bombs unleashed by an F/A-18 attack plane and a point-blank attack by a rocket launcher to quell them.

The Marines got their fallen man, suffering one more dead and at least five wounded in the process. And according to survivors of the battle, the foreign fighters near the Syrian border proved to be everything their reputation had suggested: fierce, determined and lethal to the last.

"They came here to die," said Gunnery Sgt. Chuck Hurley, commander of the team from the 1st Platoon, Lima Company, of the Marines' 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment, that battled the insurgents in the one-story house in Ubaydi, about 15 miles east of the Syrian border.

"They were willing to stay in place and die with no hope," Hurley said Tuesday. "All they wanted was to take us with them.''

The fighting that began Sunday in Ubaydi was an unplanned opening phase of a massive Marine offensive in Iraq's far northwest against the foreign fighters who U.S. and Iraqi commanders say are crossing the Syrian border to join the Iraqi insurgency. By Monday, more than 1,000 Marines backed by Cobra helicopters and Hornet warplanes were pouring into an area north of the Euphrates River where few American troops and no Iraqi forces have been for at least a year.

U.S. commanders say they believe that foreigner leaders of the insurgency have established a refuge north of the Euphrates they use to channel incoming fighters, arms and support to insurgents in the rest of Iraq.

"We're taking down an enemy safe haven," said Lt. Col. Tim Mundy, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Regiment, which along with the 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment, did the bulk of the fighting at Ubaydi.

Jarami, Iraq
U.S. officers say the most-wanted insurgent leader in Iraq, the Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi, is being sheltered among tribal leaders in Haditha and Hit, two towns 80 and 110 miles downriver. The Americans say Zarqawi was almost caught in February at a checkpoint between the towns. Other sightings since have placed him in other towns on the south side of the Euphrates. In Haqlaniyah, Zarqawi felt bold enough to preach a sermon at a mosque, according to at least one report to U.S. forces.

U.S. and Iraqi officials blame Zarqawi and other foreign fighters for many of the insurgency's bloodiest attacks, including suicide bombings that are claiming dozens of lives almost daily in Iraq.

Fighting continued Tuesday north of the Euphrates, where the Marines' heavy-caliber weapons, mortars and artillery could be heard booming across the green river at dusk.

At least three Marines have been killed in the offensive. Marine Col. Stephen Davis, commander of Marine Regimental Combat Team 2, said he believed at least 75 foreign fighters were killed Sunday, after the offensive opened prematurely with the clash at Ubaydi.

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