FALLUJAH, Iraq - Inside the house, the fighters huddled together, chanting to God.
Outside, U.S. Marines wondered how to kill them.
"These guys don't die easy," said Lance Cpl. Marquel Curtis, as he crouched in a foxhole yesterday, watching from a safe distance as grenades and heavy machine gun fire raked the house.
The offensive to drive insurgents from Fallujah is largely won. Marines, with their overwhelming firepower, have gained control over what had been a rebel enclave.
But the fighting continues, especially in the city's southern neighborhoods, where hard-core insurgents - including many believed to be from other Arab and Muslim lands - remain dug in, some using crude bunkers and tunnels as cover. Young men in dark sweat pants and sneakers, what passes for an insurgent uniform, are making a desperate stand in these bunkers and abandoned homes bypassed by the Marines as they swooped south.
The final stretches have become the most bitterly contested.
Marines from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Regiment, have pushed to the city's southern edge, where half-constructed brick houses give way to desert and canals siphon water from the Euphrates River to nourish fields of okra.
Arriving there from downtown, two miles to the north, is a journey through blasted homes, smashed shops, bombed-out mosques. Hardly a pane of glass in Fallujah appears to have survived the U.S.-led onslaught. Tanks and other U.S. armored vehicles are posted at most intersections along the main north-south supply route. A few terrified civilians peer from side streets as U.S. jets roar overhead.
Smoke rises from buildings, the aftermath of dwindling U.S. airstrikes. Periodic detonations rattle the street. Machine-gun fire echoes in the distance. But the level of fire has dropped drastically in recent days.
"We're at the edge of town," said Cpl. Cory Hixon, 21, seated at the house occupied by Alpha Company.
Marines on a break lounged inside and on the patio and munched on Meals Ready to Eat. The men fought their way down from the north on foot and were exhausted.
The night before, a squad of guerrillas had tried to infiltrate from the south, where, Marines said, many fighters had fled into neighboring farming hamlets. The bodies of five were in a crevice in the desert, one with $700 in U.S. cash and 200 euros in his pocket. Marines found Syrian identification on several dead guerrillas.
Having seized Fallujah, Marines have begun the laborious task of backtracking, clearing buildings one by one. At midafternoon, a squad of Marines gathered around 2nd Lt. Doug Bahrns, leader of Alpha Company's 3rd Platoon.
"Some civilians are starting to come back to their homes," Bahrns advised. "Don't be surprised if you see them."
The troops spread out, headed toward homes near the Alpha Company compound. U.S. airstrikes have hammered the area in recent weeks, viewing it as a command-and-control center for the forces of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who remains at large.
The houses yielded what is standard fare in Fallujah - rocket tubes, mortar shells, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, an optical guidance system for missiles. Around the corner, two dead insurgents lay face up in a courtyard. Both appeared to be in their early 20s. They had opened fire on U.S. forces the day before, Marines said, and the troops responded with grenade rounds. Yesterday, a Marine removed grenades from the cartridge belts strung across their bodies.
"What a waste of life," said 1st Lt. John Flanigan. Around the corner, Marines cautiously broke down several doors. Some houses are known to be booby-trapped. The day before, a Marine was shot dead as he entered a nearby building. Insurgents inside grabbed his machine gun and kept firing.
After a firefight, the bodies of five insurgents were found inside. One appeared no more than 12 years old; he was believed to have been with his father, one of the older men killed.
"We should be passing out candy to kids here, not shooting at them," Hixon said. "But this guy sent his kid out to fight. We didn't know how old he was."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.