CAMP BLUE DIAMOND, Iraq -- Two Marine battalions shut down access to the Iraqi city of Fallujah by early Monday morning in an effort to isolate and root out terrorists there.
By Tuesday, five Camp Pendleton Marines from the 1st Marine Division were killed and an unknown number of anti-coalition forces were dead. Firefights erupted after Marines came under mortar and rocket-propelled grenade attacks during the first two days of the operation.
"The city is surrounded," said 2nd Lt. James G. Vanzant to reporters at the onset of the operation. "It's an extended operation. We want to make a very precise approach to this... We are looking for the bad guys in town."
Marines from 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment and 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment surrounded the tumultuous city, known for being a hive of enemy activity.
The mission, dubbed Operation Vigilant Resolve, started when forces with Regimental Combat Team 1 moved to the outskirts of Fallujah and is expected to last into the coming days. It comes on the heels of the deaths and mutilations of four U.S. contractors in the city and a series of small arms, rocket and mortar attacks against Coalition Forces during the last few months.
The Marines, backed by light armored and amphibious assault vehicles as well as M-1A1 tanks, set up a series of checkpoints, effectively locking down the city.
Marines probed the city's outer perimeter, but haven't entered the heart of the city since the operation began. Reinforcements from the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, working in tandem with the Marines, are poised to carry out missions within the city limits.
"Our concern is precise," Vanzant explained to reporters. "We want to get the guys we are after. We don't want to go in there with guns blazing."
Iraqi police passed out leaflets to Fallujah residents urging them to cooperate to Coalition Forces and the city's mayor imposed a curfew from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m. The mayor also banned residents from carrying weapons. Under Coalition rules, Iraqis are allowed to keep certain weapons in their home for self-protection.
The latest set of violence sparked after masked Iraqi gunmen ambushed and killed four U.S.-contracted security personnel in what appeared to be a coordinated attack. Terrorists launched grenades into the security's convoy, setting their two sports-utility vehicles ablaze. Their bodies were dragged through the streets and hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River.
Local Imams, or Muslim religious clerics, issued a fatwah - a religious order - denouncing the desecration of the American bodies. The edict, though, fell short of calling for an end to targeting Americans.
The 1st Marine Division entered Iraq with the motto, "No better friend, no worse enemy," which signifies the Marines' desire to bring peace and stability to the Al Anbar Province in western Iraq. Several large civic projects designed to boost employment and relieve harsh living conditions are planned for the city. Those projects, though, can't be acted upon until security is established.
"The Army spent more than $2 million in Fallujah alone," said Col. Michael W. Manske, assistant chief of staff for the Division's GX, a staff section created especially to assist in stabilization efforts. "We are standing by to execute a number of additional projects to support the long-range plan."
Manske said future projects include establishing and upgrading essential services in Fallujah, including water, power and sanitation. He said that Marines are also fielding requests from Fallujah leaders on other projects Marines might accomplish.
"We've established a good working relationship with local governmental and influential leaders in Fallujah," Manske explained. "But the violence that threatens innocent citizens of that city and intimidates local leaders and Iraqi security forces hampers our efforts to enact civil affairs projects.
"We look forward to the day when good order and discipline is restored so we can continue with the good work to help the Iraqi people," he added.