FALLUJAH, Iraq – A young Marine leaned against his sandbagged machine gun nest, staring into a killing zone of scorched houses and deserted alleys — a bleak landscape so familiar from days of watch duty that it no longer blunts his thoughts of home, barbecues, parties and college.
"Most of the time we forget about this place and think of home. Occasionally we get interrupted by a few gunshots," Lance Cpl. Ignacio Villarreal (search) said Saturday.
A two-week freeze on a Marine offensive in Fallujah has given troops heaps of time to ponder as they fill sandbags, trade jokes and wait to see if the battle resumes. The routine is interrupted only by sporadic pot shots from black-suited gunmen.
U.S. commanders warn that the Marines could go back on the attack within days, resuming an assault that has killed hundreds of Iraqi insurgents and at least seven Marines this month.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt (search) suggested Saturday that Marines could soon storm the city because guerrillas have not abided by a demand to hand over their heavy weapons.
"Our patience is not eternal," Kimmitt said at a news conference in Baghdad. He said he was speaking of only a matter of "days."
L. Paul Bremer (search), the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, went to Fallujah on Saturday to hold talks on the next steps.
On the ground, Marines are running out of patience, too, frustrated with sitting in defensive positions and abiding by regulations that allow them to shoot only when fired at first or if a weapon is pointed at them.
"It messes with your head. I can't stand this," Villarreal, 20, from Los Angeles, said while gazing out at a trash-strewn street lined with barbed wire.
Guarding a front line known to battle planners as "phase line violet," his post sits amid a clutter of greasy auto parts and broken-down cars next to a cheese factory where the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment has positioned one of its companies.
The battalion controls a large industrial sector on the city's outskirts. Marines barrel along rutted streets in Humvees, cruising through an apocalyptic scene of derelict factories, garages, rusted car hulks and piles of scrap metal.
The tedium is broken only by only amid the occasional chatter with comrades or the growls of dogs scrapping in the streets, Villarreal said. "You got the dog wars. That's fun to watch."
Most of the time, he's thinking of home, of drinking a few beers and going to his first college party. He and his buddies joke they are spending spring break 2004 in Fallujah — "having a blast, literally."
Then a boy on a bicycle cruised across a muddy street crisscrossed with sagging power lines, a reminder that there is life out there.
Marines worry about how they can take the city with so many civilians still inside. Only about a third of Fallujah's 200,000 residents have fled, many of them to refugee camps in Baghdad.
"Something's going to happen one way or another," said Gunnery Sgt. Sean Cox, 31, from Hoffman Estates, Ill. "It's been quiet. But we'll see what happens in a few days."
Then he adds, "But we say that every few days."
Some of the Marines think the demand for insurgents to hand in weapons is unrealistic.
"These aren't regular people who live in Fallujah and are just mad that we're here," said Lance Cpl. Abraham McCarver, 21, from Memphis, Tenn. "They're terrorist jihad (holy war) fighters; not the type you'd think would surrender."
Some officers handed out photos of al-Qaida-linked militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian. U.S. officials have said he may be among the numerous foreign fighters they think are holed up in Fallujah.
These Marines got a taste of their foe's tenacity on April 13 when insurgents swarmed two armored vehicles, firing assault rifles and barrages of rocket-propelled grenades. The rockets ripped through one of the vehicles, killing a turret gunner and wounding another Marine, tearing a chunk from his right leg.
Pfc. Aldo Hernandez, 19, of San Fernando, Calif., remembers running from one of the burning vehicles with fellow Marines and taking cover in a house. He said hundreds more insurgents joined the fight, some pouring out of hiding inside ambulances.
"I was stunned. They swarmed on us like a bunch of ants," he said. A quick reaction force came to their aid and extracted the Marines after an hours-long battle.
Asked what he thinks about crossing the front line to confront those fighters again, Hernandez said simply he does what he's told and will be fine.