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thedrifter
02-01-06, 03:22 PM
Feb. 01, 2006 - 11:43 AM
Dispatches from Iraq
On Patrol In a Tense Fallujah
Paul McLeary
CJR Daily

Part of a continuing series about the life of an embedded reporter in Iraq.

FALLUJAH, IRAQ -- A couple Marines came stomping through the door of the hootch where I was sleeping at about 4 a.m., body armor and weaponry clattering behind them as they climbed into their own bunks. They were back from one of Echo Company's late-night patrols in Fallujah, which are staggered to keep the insurgents off-balance.

I fell back into a vague sleep for a few more hours (it's not exactly quiet in a cramped room with 16 other guys), and later in the morning headed out to the loading dock to talk with some of the troops. They told me that since their deployment to Fallujah a few months ago, they hadn't seen any other American reporters pass through their area of control, but had a few Germans and some Danes embed with them. That surprised me. I had assumed that as their ability to get around on their own dried up, reporters -- especially American reporters -- would head out to embed more often, not less. Then again, I was with one unit in a wide theater of operations, and just because one company hadn't seen other American reporters doesn't mean they're not out there. A couple of the guys said that there was an American writer bouncing around different units in the area working on a book, but no one seemed to remember his name.

Early that afternoon, I got the call from Capt. Pinion that I was heading out a mounted patrol. The guys loaded up and I got in the second of the two 7-ton trucks (when sitting, the steel plating along the sides reached roughly to my chin, and the top was open), and was assigned a "minder" -- basically, a guy to ensure that I didn't wander off and do something stupid -- and we were off.

Sitting on a bench in the middle of the truck, facing out, the guys moved their weapons into comfortable firing positions once we passed the barbed wire gate, leaving Echo's base camp.

The Marine assigned to keep me out of trouble, Lance Cpl. Copley, got stuck with me because it was his first day back with Echo after being shot in the, umm, posterior, in a firefight with insurgents the previous month.

No more than a minute after leaving the rail station, we had weaved through a checkpoint, swung a hard left and were bouncing down the streets of Fallujah, kicking up a dust storm in our wake. Almost as if on cue, the moment we hit the city, hordes of children came running from every house and side street to yell and wave at the passing Marines. The guys would wave back and the kids seemed to get a big kick out of it. The adults paid us far less attention, purposefully ignoring the trucks as they passed.

The convoy headed for the market area, where a lethal sniper has been harassing the Marines for the past few months. Reporters in Baghdad told me stories they had heard about the "Fallujah sniper," and were curious to find out if the rumors that had filtered out from the city were true. Seems they are, sort of. Some of the grunts at the rail station told me that they had heard the sniper was from Chechnya, where he had sharpened his skills against the Russians, while others said that they heard he was an Olympic sharpshooter from one a several Arab countries. When I asked Capt. Pinion about this he scoffed and said "He's probably just a guy who got some training in Syria." Any way you cut it, the guy is out there, and he's killed a few Marines in the city over the past few months. Word is that he has been taking a page from the D.C. sniper, and is shooting from the trunk of a car, out of a removable taillight.

Once we hit the market, a squad of Marines got out of the truck in front of us and walked through the market on foot, as a show of force. The soldiers on the street were obviously tense, and the guys in my truck kept their weapons ready, scanning the parked cars and pedestrians. Fallujah doesn't see many car bombings when there are this many civilians around, one of the guys told me, because it's a Sunni city, and many of the insurgents are Sunnis interested only in killing Shia.

After passing through the market and loading back up, the Marines set about their daily routine, which is acting on intelligence about suspicious cars spotted in the city. The way it works is this: They get word about a car in a certain neighborhood that has, say, a weighted-down trunk, or if someone with a gun is seen getting into a car, and they set about looking for it. Once such a car is spotted by the motorized patrol, one Humvee races in front of it to cut it off, and one gets behind. The Marines pile out, block traffic, tell the driver to get out and search the car. For all its routine, each car search is a tense situation. The Marines are on the street, exposed, and the car, or the driver, has the potential to be a bomb waiting to happen. Once the car is checked, if nothing is found, the Marines run back to the trucks and set off again.

We did this for about two hours, and the guys allowed me to jump out of the truck to get a closer view. Lance Cpl. Copley always stuck close by, gun up, advising me to move around, stand near a wall, or cross the street, so I wouldn't be a stationary target. The Iraqi interpreter from the day before told me that since I wasn't dressed as a Marine, many Iraqis seeing me with the Marines would assume I was CIA (many Iraqis think all reporters are CIA, anyway), which would make me a target.

Long story short: I kept moving.

While searching one car, a soldier standing nearby noticed a white truck with a couple of Iraqi men pass by. "That's the second time I've seen that truck," he said. A bit later, someone else saw the truck go by again. "Twice, [it] might be some guys going to work," he said. "Three times and something's up." Everyone loaded up, but the truck had disappeared.

Driving back to the camp, we passed a mosque that a Marine pointed out to me. "That's the mosque somebody threw a grenade at us from," he said, laughing.

It was easy to laugh as we approached the base simply because this had been a quiet day on patrol. No one killed, no one hurt, no one taken into custody.

In Iraq, that's a good day at the office.

Ellie