NASIRIYAH, Iraq - The approach to this city is astonishing. After miles and miles of tan dirt, suddenly, palm trees. Lush green grass slopes toward the Euphrates River. A large, arching bridge spans the river and becomes the main road through town.
"Ambush Alley" it has been called since the surprise attacks last Sunday, first on a straying Army convoy, and then on a Marine infantry unit.
These days, the Marines take no chances along the alley. They pass through town in armor convoys. Every soldier not holding a steering wheel is holding a rifle or a pistol.
The driver punches the gas pedal, and Ambush Alley flies by at more than 60 mph. It is lined with single-story tan dwellings with short walls in front and drying clothes draped over chipped brick. The road is poor, but clean and orderly. There are endless places to hide.
The Marines see windows. They see flat roofs. During the fight last weekend, men pulled mortars onto the roofs, fired a couple of rounds, then pulled back inside.
The surviving infantrymen live for now in an abandoned complex of buildings well off the road behind a gate, a former Iraqi military headquarters. On Friday, they recalled the surprise attack.
"One guy would come out and take a picture and wave," said Lt. Bennett Williams, 24, of Abilene, Kan., "and then run back in and grab an AK-47."
People strolled along the road. Narrow dirt alleys branch off in both directions, lined with more small homes and more trees.
A group of young men stopped as the convoy passed and threw their hands in the air. No one shot a picture, or a gun.
"There were lots of women and children running around," Williams recalled of the battle. "It was kind of distracting when you're trying to kill people."
The disguises continue to change. Reports came in from the city Friday that an Iraqi ambulance stopped near troops and men in white coats stepped out. Then they started shooting.
'The Train Set'
Last week Marines rushed into a low-slung, sprawling, abandoned complex north of the city with a large painting of Saddam Hussein in front. Another team toured the complex Friday.
It appeared to be a paramilitary training camp. Deep holes for fighting lined the main drive into the camp and, beyond them, obstacle courses and hand-painted silhouetted targets on blocks of concrete: a soldier's form, a tank's, a jeep's, a figure dropping in a parachute.
One building in a corner has only a front, like a movie prop, presumably for practicing shooting into windows, or out of them.
In another building, a row of doors led to dark rooms where documents and personnel files were stored, a man's photo stapled inside each cover. Marines seized them.
Another room contained piles of empty gear bags, straps, black hats and green hoods that show only the eyes and nose. Marines scooped up a few of them for souvenirs. One called them "terrorist hoods."
But the room that everyone talked about later was the one with "the train set." Most of the floor was covered with an intricate model of the city of Nasiriyah, with colored scraps of paper marking sand and marsh, and strips of colored clay for roads and the rivers.
Pink foam blocks represented buildings. White string created a grid, and triangular blue flags and cardboard yellow pyramids with Arabic script seemed to mark troop locations, whether a large building or a bedroom window.
The room had the feel of a gathering suddenly interrupted, its members hiding nearby, and the Marines spoke in hushed tones. Some pulled out disposable cameras.
The walls were covered with murals of combat, thick with grimaces and bloody swords. One showed a woman churning butter with one hand and waving an automatic rifle with the other. Another, rows of men in green fatigues and the green hoods marching past a mosque.
In a corner, a mural depicted two tall buildings. They lean wrongly, and the windows do not line up, as if it were the work of a child. An airplane has just struck the center of one as a second one approaches. The fireball is pink and red.
Land of the flies
The artillery battalion chose its camp south of the city after dark. Nobody knew about the flies until the next morning.
Flies everywhere: on sleeping bags, on helmets, behind ears, marching everywhere.
Pat a man on the back, and a dozen flies scatter. No insect repellent seems to help. "They're industrial-strength flies," the battalion's doctor said.
Inside the command tent, the flies are even worse. Someone hung a strip of sticky yellow flypaper from a bungee cord, and soon it was heavily dotted with black flies.
Outside the camp, Nasiriyah pops and booms on Day Seven of a battle no one guessed would last seven hours. Cobra helicopters swoop in looping dips, their muzzles flashing like strobes.
Few Marines had heard of the town a month ago, even two weeks ago. It has become a full-blown campaign, with U.S. reinforcements on the way.
For now, though, the Marines are stuck here - with the flies.