FALLUJAH, Iraq – Dodging bullets from the fighting in Fallujah's neighborhoods, U.S. troops laid cables, built toilets and settled in at the city's train station Tuesday, transforming it into a new forward base hours after U.S. and Iraqi forces captured it from insurgents.
The night before, Marines launched their assault on the station, located in the desert just north of the city. Forces crept forward across the sand in tanks and armored personnel carriers to within 200 yards of the station's empty loading platforms — then opened fire with a barrage of tank rounds and .50 caliber machine-gun fire.
The fight lasted hours, and Iraqi forces secured the station by midnight. A handful of U.S. commanders began moving in early Tuesday under a cold drizzle, and by dawn troops were lounging in chairs, drinking coffee and blinking under a warm sun in a station littered with shrapnel and shards of concrete.
"It feels good to be here. I feel like we've really done something," said Corp. Keith Sharp, of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (search).
"The nicest thing is sitting and thinking about going back home," said the 23-year old from Gerber, Calif., as he ate rations. "And I've only been shot at once."
Several hundred yards away, U.S. Army and Marine troops were battling in Fallujah's warren of streets and alleys, carrying out the main thrust on a major offensive to wrest the city from the control of Sunni Muslim insurgents (search).
Insurgents did not appear to put up great resistance at the railway station, firing about a half-dozen rocket-propelled grenades at the armored vehicles — sending Marines diving for cover but injuring none. Officers said they believed few rebels were in the buildings.
On Tuesday, U.S. forces marched suspected insurgents into an abandoned waiting room at the one-time railroad station.
"Stand up. Now," Marines shouted at the blindfolded men who flinched from their captors.
Artillery and machine-gun fire continued to rage Tuesday morning as U.S. forces battled southward into Fallujah. Mosques blared calls to prayers and smoke rose from the city as tanks crept along the northernmost neighborhoods, where no civilians could be seen outdoors.
Occasional small-arms fire hit the train station parking lot. U.S. and Iraqi troops jumped behind walls covered in Arabic script, as the walls were riddled with .50 caliber rounds. U.S. forces on the station roof scanned the city for snipers.
Engineers put down wires and surveyed rooms where Iraqi National Guard (search) troops had slept the night before. Other troops built privies. Humvees mounted with guns and carrying U.S. soldiers and Marines drove through the parking lot.
Marines offered themselves qualified kudos Tuesday for taking one of the first targets in the Fallujah assault — a battle that officers say could take days.
"I'd rather be fighting the terrorists here than in the U.S.," said Sgt. Jack Pierce, a 30-year-old from Houston, sitting in a collapsible chair and drinking coffee.
"We're not screwing around," he said of the rapid transformation of Fallujah's train station into a military base. "This is one of the best maintenance teams anywhere. Just sit back and watch them work."