New York Times
November 13, 2004
FALLUJA, Iraq, Nov. 12 - The farther south the marines push through this rebellious city, the more often they notice that the men shooting at them are wearing tan uniforms with a smart-looking camouflage pattern that is the color of chocolate chips.
Those are the uniforms of the Iraqi National Guard.
On Friday, after several hours of nonstop gun battles around a mosque in southern Falluja had killed about 100 insurgents, the marines said that those tan uniforms had cost one of their own his life the day before. It happened in what they first called an ambush, but now believe was a case of mistaken identity, combined with quick reflexes by insurgents who are using their wits to deadly effect as they approach their last stand.
The insurgents are also believed to have killed marines in the First Battalion, Eighth Marines, with the help of a network of tunnels gouged beneath Falluja for this fight. And they have apparently found a way to zero in with their mortars on strobes that the marines use to mark their position as a protection against friendly fire - strobes that they thought were invisible to their foe.
"You can tell that the quality of the fighters has improved as we've moved south through the city," said Lt. Steven Berch. "They shoot better, they move better, they cover themselves better."
That progression, too, seems to have been part of a plan by the rebels. How well it has worked is open to debate, but the 50-man platoon that lost the marine on Thursday had nine other casualties as well - a stunning rate of 20 percent in a single day - all a result of the rebels' skill.
This tale begins with the Iraqi soldiers who sat in a circle, cross-legged, within the Great Mosque on Friday, wearing those same tan uniforms. The only difference was that these Iraqis had been ordered to mark themselves as friendlies with swatches of red tape on their right arms and white tape on their left legs.
On this day, the soldiers were not doing much of anything except eating MRE's, the American military's "Meals - Ready to Eat." In fact, they have done little if any fighting at all, but as a gesture to Muslim sensitivities are generally the first to enter each mosque as it is taken.
When approached and asked about themselves, the soldiers reflexively lapse into robotic platitudes. "I joined the Iraqi Army to clean the terrorists out of our country," said a man who identified himself only as Muhammad, a Sunni Arab from Mosul. "I am proud to be doing this."
The soldiers have revealed more of themselves during their limited periods of activity. During the gun battle around the mosque, an Iraqi in civilian clothes who had been seriously wounded in the face appeared on the street waving a white flag. "Don't shoot, don't shoot!" he pleaded in Arabic. "I have a family with me. There are women in the car."
There were no obvious signs of an ambush, but two of the Iraqi soldiers said, "Just shoot him." But for whatever reason, the Americans held off, and the man produced his wife, mother and two children, all struck by gunfire. His daughter had been shot in the back and his mother in the head. Trying their best to avoid stepping on another set of Muslim taboos, Marines attempted to remove the bullet from the man's daughter while she was standing up, with her clothes on. Her fate is unknown, but the man's mother died later.
These seemingly loyal Iraqi soldiers had no direct involvement in the Thursday incident first classified as an ambush. But visual memory being what it is, when members of the First Platoon, B Company, First Battalion, Eighth Regiment of the First Marine Expeditionary Force, turned onto a street on Thursday, they saw the chocolate-chip camouflage pattern and hesitated.
There was no red tape on the right arm or white tape on the left leg. It did not matter. Before that registered with the marines, the insurgents opened fire, killing one and wounding two. The rebels fled.
Inside the mosque, Staff Sgt. Eric Brown of the First Platoon looked toward the Iraqis who were eating the MRE's. "They should just take these guys out of here," Sergeant Brown said, "because they're causing my men to hesitate.'' He added, "That hesitation cost my marine his life."
It is not clear whether the bootlegged uniforms have been stolen or bought on the black market, or whether they are actually on the backs of the Iraqis who have been trained and put into the uniforms by Americans as a replacement for Saddam Hussein's disbanded security forces. After an aborted invasion of this city in April, a uniformed group called the Falluja Brigade was formed but quickly disbanded.
"You can't see the tape at night," conceded Col. Craig Tucker, commander of a huge combat team made up of several battalions, including the First Battalion.
Colonel Tucker also conceded that the Iraqi fighters were not in the same league as the marines. But he said, "It's important to the people of Falluja that Iraqi soldiers are here."
The marines here say that insurgents also turn up in the uniforms of the old Iraqi Army. Whether the uniforms are some ploy or just a way to stay warm, though, it is clear that this is not the only way they are getting inside the Americans' heads.
Seven of the First Platoon's casualties Thursday came when marines entered a house and there were two big explosions. Some of the wounded said that grenades had been tossed at them, and when marines later discovered a tunnel system under the house, they surmised that the insurgents had entered that way and attacked. "We were briefed that there was a tunnel system under the city," said Sgt. Sam Williams, who saw the tunnels before the entire structure was destroyed .
As for the insurgents apparently using the American military's strobes - the ones that protect against friendly fire - to guide their nighttime mortar attacks, the marines solved that problem by removing them from the buildings they occupied.
And for a few minutes on Thursday night, as Capt. Read Omohundro and about a dozen other members of B Company sat in the dark on a rooftop, things were quiet. There was only slight concern when Captain Omohundro heard on the radio that a group of about 15 insurgents had been identified somewhere close to his position, and that an airstrike had been called in to destroy them.
Then something clicked in his mind, and he rushed to the radio and called off the airstrike. The captain had been mistaken for an insurgent.