Tuesday, April 4, 2006 Last updated 11:54 a.m. PT
In Ramadi, an up-close view of skirmishes

By TODD PITMAN
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

RAMADI, Iraq -- Darting through the shadows of this insurgent-plagued city, U.S. Marines zigzagged down the street, past ornate columned villas and palm trees silhouetted against the night sky.

Pausing at a black gate, a Marine knelt and another stepped onto his back, hurtling over to unlock it from inside. There was no polite request for entry. The threat from insurgent bombs, snipers or small arms fire was too great.

"We apologize for the inconvenience," 31-year-old Staff Sgt. William Brooks of Houston said as a man, his wife and two children came to the door to watch Marines take up positions in their courtyard. "We're just stopping by. We'll be on our way soon."

Most people would be shocked to see a dozen heavily armed troops taking cover in their front yard. But after three years of near-daily skirmishes between insurgents and U.S. forces, folks in Ramadi are used to it.

After a six-month deployment outside Fallujah last year, the 3rd Battalion, 8th Regiment of Camp Lejeune, N.C., are back in Iraq for a second tour. Commanders said they are getting to know their "battle space," patrolling neighborhoods and entering houses.

During one recent night patrol, a Marine unit entered half a dozen villas in three hours. Nobody appeared surprised or seemed to mind. One woman came into the kitchen to see who was around, saw Marines through the window and casually walked into another room. Another man, perhaps woken up by the clank of automatic weapons bumping into his front gate, did the same.

"There's a tolerance for what we're doing out here. They realize we're here to help," Brooks said, adding he had expected a more hostile reception. "I've been pleasantly surprised."

Other Marines said reaction to the domestic interruptions varies.

"Sometimes they don't talk to you at all. Sometimes they're scared of us," said Lance Cpl. Ryan Walblay, 20, of Bowling Green, Ky. "Sometimes they're scared that after we leave, insurgents will threaten or kill them."

Both U.S. and Iraqi troops have burst in on homes to use them as makeshift "strong-points" during firefights. While on patrol, they often move quickly on foot down streets, taking cover inside villa walls.

"We prefer to move courtyard to courtyard because of the sniper threat, especially during the day," Brooks said.

At House No. 1 on the recent patrol, a Marine handed two children a palm full of candy before quickly moving on.

The second and third houses were empty, with lights flickering inside and some window glass broken. They weren't searched.

As Marines stood in House No. 3's courtyard, a massive blast suddenly pierced the air. The Marines crouched briefly and watched as a huge plume of grayish white smoke rose above buildings perhaps 400 yards away.

A U.S. patrol had just rolled by and they thought it might have been hit. They didn't run after it. Insurgents are known to detonate roadside bombs only to set the stage for a larger ambush. The Marines learned later an explosives ordnance disposal team was moving in to disarm the bomb when it went off - probably detonated by remote control. Nobody was wounded.

At House No. 4, Marines unlocked another gate and stepped inside. A father, a mother, two young daughters and two teenage sons living there keep their sandals outside the door. The Marines marched in, stepping onto red carpets with boots caked in dust.

They stayed for an hour, setting up a temporary post. They studied satellite maps of the neighborhood, and scanned outside with night vision goggles to be sure nobody was following them. Lines of U.S. Humvees rolled down the streets, patrolling with their lights off. A lone helicopter clattered overhead.

The family was kept in the living room while the house was lightly searched. "We have to keep an eye on them, especially the men," Walblay said.

Several Marines sat with the family, who appeared genuinely at ease, curious and smiling. They joked in broken English with the Marines sitting on their blue couch.

The sons and daughters stared at their equipment with wide eyes. Each Marine was crammed into a full set of heavy armor, clutching an automatic rifle. Night vision equipment was on their camouflaged helmets.

There was no serious questioning. A couple of Marines appeared simply to be getting to know the family.

The family was surprised that Walblay speaks basic Arabic, which he picked up from a translator last year.

Speaking broken English, one of the sons, Issa, said "we were watching the Oprah Winfrey show."

Mustafa, the father, said they don't go out after 7 p.m., four hours before curfew.

"Ramadi, good, not good," Mustafa said, mimicking the sound of explosions. "My daughters ..." - he wrapped his hands around his arms, pretending to shiver in fright, explaining the girls fear the war.

The sisters smiled, bashfully.

Inside, one Marine sat on a stairwell with his helmet off, smoking a cigarette.

One Marine asked if they family has seen any insurgents.

"If I know, I say to you," Issa said. "You love your country, we love our country."

Several villas later, the troops were back at base.

Ellie