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Straight up combat behind Operation Steel Curtain

A street-level look at fighting in Husayba

By Arwa Damon
Moving room-to-room, the troops' eyes are peeled. It's strenuous, repetitive and potentially lethal work.



HUSAYBA, Iraq (CNN) -- The morning sunrise is broken by 50-caliber machine gun fire.

"Right on time. It's the 6 a.m. wake-up call," jokes one of the Marines with India Company's first platoon.

It's day three of Operation Steel Curtain, aimed at rooting out insurgents and foreign fighters from Husayba, a city nestled along the Syrian border, and its outskirts. The city has not had a permanent military presence for more than a year. Even before the operation began, Marines had nicknamed it "Son of Fallujah."

"Let's go! Let's go! Watch that alleyway!" Gunnery Sgt. Jeff Cullen yells to his men. 1st Platoon darts out, weapons clanking and boots pounding, taking up position to get ready for the day's push through central Husayba.

"Be alert," Gunny warns. The men's eyes are peeled -- house-to-house, room-to-room -- wary of closed doors. It's strenuous, repetitive and potentially lethal work. A Marine was killed by the third day of fighting by an insurgent laying in wait behind a locked door while the unit was clearing a house.

Doors smash open. Glass shatters. U.S. Marines and their Iraqi Army counterparts dash through homes. Gunfire a couple of blocks away echoes through the narrow streets, interspersed with tank rounds, air strikes, door breaches and controlled detonations. (Watch the platoon hunt for insurgents -- 3:03)

"Three MAMs [military-age males] with AK-47s to the south -- moving" comes in the call from the radio. "Roger, three MAMs."

The men on a rooftop hear movement in the house below.

"Get out!" Cullen shouts, then turns to an Iraqi soldier. "Tell him to get out with his hands up now!"

A family emerges from the home. Women fearful, children with wide eyes. The mother covers a child's ears as the sound of F/A-18 fighter jets overhead gets closer.

Across the street another family, the mother's eyes filled with tears.

"We just want security" she says. "We can't live like this."

The women and children hang back while the men chat with the Iraqi Army troops and U.S. Marines. The gunfire dies down. Around the corner a man is being interrogated by U.S. forces who have intelligence that his brother is an insurgent.

His father, an old man who's hands shake as he points out all the homes in the neighborhood that have been deserted. "We would have left, too," he says "but my wife is paralyzed. She is ill."

A block south a dead man is found holding an AK-47, his rib cage is broken, his insides exposed. Civilians walk through the rubble, talking with troops of coalition forces.

A few houses down EOD -- explosive ordinance disposal -- troops are fixing blocks of C4 explosives to bomb-making materials: propane tanks, artillery, wires and receivers.

In a house down the road a man with a broken arm and hip is being treated by a Navy corpsman. The room stinks of urine. The injured man tells of how insurgents kidnapped and beat him before leaving him there. But the Marines find an AK-47 and a spider device: two batteries attached to wires used to detonate roadside bombs -- the notorious improvised explosive devices -- IEDs.

He is taken for treatment and interrogation.

A relative calm descends on Husayba. The gunfire has stopped ringing through the streets. A family opens its vegetable stand, a small boy sweeps away debris. Neighbors visit one another, chatting.

Marines continue to push forward, clearing house after house.

"Controlled detonation! They are going to blow the IED factory!" comes the call over India company commander Capt. Conlin Carabine's radio. "Everybody inside! Take cover!" Carabine yells, then runs to tell the families to get inside.

A blast rings out. The men on the rooftop cheer as the roof of the bomb factory flies through the air.

Gunny Cullen and his men move to clear a nearby house. A loud pop is heard, then a rocket propelled grenade whooshes through the air. Then an explosion on the other end.

"It came from the rooftop on the left side of the road!" It sounds as though the entire city has erupted in gunfire. On all fronts, gunfire.

The men on a vehicle called an amtrack, an amphibious armored vehicle, let loose with the 50 caliber machine gun and automatic grenade launcher down an alleyway where the RPG shooter has been spotted.

"Those tracks need to shoot another 100 meters down the road. That's where it came from. They are shooting too close," a Marine shouts. Gunny Cullen and his men press toward the target, gunfire on all sides. The target house is a few blocks away. The men burst through houses clearing them, taking position of rooftops as another squad presses on.

From a rooftop Cullen spots movement in the target building and opens fire. "Yankee six, tell him it's the same thing that the first sergeant was looking at: those guys in the windows, guy in white ... with AK-47 running through the window," he shouts into his radio.

The platoon continues to push forward, moving toward the elusive enemy, eyes peeled, footsteps fast. Gunfire from other units surrounds them. "Hold the wall! GO! GO! GO!" Cullen barks.

The men run through a small field, taking cover behind the rubble of a house that was blown up a few hours earlier. The gunfire intensifies. The target is just ahead. But Cullen holds up his platoon.

To the right, a second platoon is engaged in a fierce firefight. It's an agonizing and nerve-wracking wait. Finally Cullen breaks the silence.

"We are going to try and push forward. Don't shoot over our heads," he calls to the second platoon commander.

"Cover that alleyway," he yells to his men. They move forward, boots slipping on piles of broken bricks. They dash over the rubble and into a house, run up broken stairs to the roof just facing their target house. Cullen decides to fire a rocket into a bottom window. Glass shatters as a large cloud of smoke rises.

"Eyes up! Eyes up!' Cullen yells to his men to watch the windows for movement. Suddenly the ongoing gunfire in the distance sounds closer. "Get down get down!" a Marines shouts as bullets hiss by.

Cullen and his men dart into the target building, guns blazing, expecting the unexpected. But the building is deserted. They search every corner, bang on every wall. But anyone who was there has disappeared.

They clear two more houses before they bunk down for the night inside a half-built home, sitting on the rooftop under the starts as night falls.

They rip open MREs - Meals Ready to Eat -- and relive their endless day -- one day in what Marines call straight-up urban combat.

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