June 9, 2006

By JESSE HAMILTON,
Courant Staff Writer  

FALLUJAH, Iraq -- The Marines of Charlie
Company had a long night, hitting houses in the
largest series of raids through the city since they've
been here. They came back to their base Thursday
morning with some success stories, but the news
that awaited them was much bigger: Al-Zarqawi
was dead.

While the Marines busted through doors and
captured insurgent suspects in the city, a U.S.
airstrike, perhaps 70 miles away, hit the most
prominent insurgent in the country. Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi, who cultivated violence in Iraq for
years, was killed along with several of his
comrades, Iraqi and U.S. military officials
announced.

His was a name heavy in Fallujah's wartime
history. Al-Zarqawi was once believed to use this
city as his base of operations in Iraq. Foreign
fighters were harbored here while they waged a
campaign of attacks.

In October 2004, the interim prime minister of Iraq
demanded that Fallujah residents hand the terrorist
over, but city religious leaders said it was an
impossible request. A month later, the Marine
Corps led an invasion of the city that cleared it of
insurgents, but if al-Zarqawi was in Fallujah at the
time, he managed to escape.

As an interpreter for Connecticut's Charlie
Company recalled, the people of Fallujah once
celebrated him. But al-Zarqawi wore out his
welcome, said Sammy, who has worked here with
U.S. forces for almost three years and uses only his
nickname.

Sammy said his Shia family and friends back home
near Baghdad are almost certainly rejoicing at the
news. "He killed thousands of Shias."

Al-Zarqawi was the most infamous, but Fallujah
has struggled in recent years with outsiders coming
in to fight. Right now, it's unclear to the Marines
here how much of their insurgent troubles come
from foreigners. They don't know, from day to
day, who is shooting at them. When the smoke
clears on firefights, it's impossible to ask the dead
where they are from.

Most of those captured in Fallujah seem to be
locals, though one insurgent wounded in a gun
battle last week was from Lebanon.

On Wednesday night's operation, about 750
Marines with 1st Battalion, 25th Marines - "New
England's Own" - hit sites all over the city,
working beside Iraqi soldiers. "Simultaneously, the
doors were being kicked in," said Maj. Vaughn
Ward, commander of Charlie Company.

They grabbed more than two dozen suspected
insurgents, with Charlie Company raking in nine of
them from its five target houses. Two of their
houses were "dry holes," the major said, but the
others netted insurgents, weapons and
bomb-making materials.

As far as he could tell, those arrested and taken to
Abu Ghraib prison were Iraqis, not foreigners. But
it was difficult to know, yet, what groups they
may be affiliated with. "There are so many
different factions working here," Ward said. "It's
hard to tell who's who."

All day Thursday, Fallujah's streets popped with
gunfire. But from inside the defenses of Charlie
Company's base, it was guesswork to figure out
who was shooting and why. If it was celebration
for al-Zarqawi's death, the Marines shared that
sentiment.

When he discovered the news, 1st Sgt. Ben
Grainger walked through the building knocking on
doors, delivering the word, his face lit up like a kid
on his way to Disney World. In the company's
television lounge - the only place the Marines get
satellite TV - they watched CNN and laughed at
images of the terrorist mastermind.

"Zarqawi ate it, man," Staff Sgt. Joey Davis said to
another Marine who had just walked into the room.
The screen was showing recent video of al-Zarqawi
firing a machine gun. "This is like the Super Bowl.
We're watching the post-game analysis."

Hours later, as Thursday night became Friday, a
larger-than-usual crowd gathered on the roof of
Charlie Company's building for a 1 a.m. session of
Americantology - the nightly gathering of
Grainger's "religion." The Marines kept their eyes
on the sky, looking for the night's special guest: a
military airplane set to drop 500,000 leaflets over
the city.

Grainger had a special song to play for the
neighbors tonight. The first notes of "New York,
New York" began, chosen to accompany the
leaflets that would tell Fallujah residents
al-Zarqawi was killed.

"Start spreadin' the news," it started, at a volume
louder than Grainger's usual shows. "I'm leavin'
today."

The blinking red lights of an aircraft soon began
cutting across the night sky.
.