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Reporter's Notebook: A Fallujah Diary

Editor's Note: FOX News was on the ground with U.S. Marines for the assault on Fallujah in November. Following are Greg Palkot's day-to-day observations from the war zone.

Watch the FOX News Channel on Sunday at 9 p.m. EST for a Breaking Point special about the eight-day fight in Fallujah. And click here for a list of organizations designed to help U.S. troops and their families.

Monday: Nov. 8

It's finally happening. After months of Fallujah (search) owning the title of insurgent capital of Iraq and weeks of training for U.S. troops to prepare for intense urban combat, the battle of Fallujah is about to begin.

It's nighttime. Crammed into an Amphibious Assault Vehicle not too much bigger inside than a Chrysler Voyager with a dozen heavily equipped Marines, cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski and I get ready to witness battle.

None of us knows what will happen. The hype of the worst-case scenario is pretty bad — hordes of suicide-crazed fanatical terrorists with all sorts of weaponry hunkered down in a heavily booby-trapped bastion of a city, ready to battle the West.

The Marines seem pretty calm. Almost all are smoking or chewing tobacco. Feeling a bit drowsy, I call over to Lance Cpl. Klayton South for the can of Red Bull he had promised to save for me. He drank it. Oh well, my adrenaline should do the trick.

The minute we cross through a gap blasted in a railroad berm on the north side of the city, explosions take place all around us. The comforting thing is they are mostly American blasts. It is a planned "shock and awe" opening to the assault designed to knock any terrorists hanging out in that corner of the city out of their collective sandals!

We get to where we need to be and there is already confusion. The Marines of 2nd Squad, 3rd Platoon, India Company (search) -- are arguing about when to launch their attack (we're embedded with them for the coming week).

After a bit of back and forth, the back door of the vehicle lowers and we scramble out into a "night turned into day" by the U.S. munitions. Air strikes, artillery, tank blasts, rockets, small arms fire — you name it.

The plan is for Pierre and me to stick with a small "fire team" within the squad to keep everything organized and straightforward. That lasts about 30 seconds. We're all too busy staying out of the way of the guys rocketing the first house the Marines are supposed to clear.

The house is full of more wires then a badly hung Christmas tree lighting — a sure sign the bad guys have a booby trap surprise for anyone going in. The decision is made to take a pass and go to the next house.

Then begins what we will watch for the next week — Marines entering house after house, room after room, in search of insurgents. Luckily on this first night, there would be no rebels hiding behind any doors.

That will come later.

Tonight there's just a particularly annoying wall to scale and a rooftop to reach. The roof seems like a nice place to relax until the sky above it is filled with whizzing terrorist AK-47 fire and much nastier Marine responses.

This will be the first of many times the phrase "nowhere to run, nowhere to hide" rattles around my head.

Tuesday: Nov. 9

While dozing on a funky-smelling carpet on the ground floor of a Fallujah house, I get a wake-up call at dawn from the roar of Marine Cobra helicopters swooping in over the house and blasting some nasty real estate a few blocks away. I nudge Pierre awake (I'll learn later that this guy works 24/7 but could sleep through Hiroshima if allowed) and we scrambled up on the roof.

We watch what would be the beginning of another routine of the week. The enemy hunkers down at night, intimidated by the hi-tech night-vision gear the U.S. military commands. Then, the bad guys get out at first light to make trouble.

What they don't know is that the Marines want the guys to come out. That's what they came for.

From our rooftop perch we get our first good view of Fallujah. The city is filled with mostly two- or three-story stucco houses but punctuated by dozens of Mosque minarets (there are supposed to be a few hundred, according to reports). The city is thought to be filled with insurgents.

Today, that landscape is dotted with plumes of smoke, explosions and fire.

A palm grove looks like something out of "Apocalypse Now." Apparently used by insurgents, it's being torn apart by U.S. fire. A low-slung bunker-like building becomes a bunker no more after heavy gunfire. And, as we leave the house to make it to our next location, we hear big blasts just down the block. It’s all a bit too close for comfort.

Wednesday: Nov. 10

We're dragged out of our sleeping bags at around 6 a.m. after getting three hours of sleep (hey ... better than last night's 1½!).

Capt. Brian Chontosh, the commander of India Company, wants us with him today and lets us sit in on his early morning officers' meeting. The assault is going better than planned, Chontosh tells the officers who led U.S. forces into the city.

Chontosh says that this day India Company might even finish taking the bulk of the territory they were assigned. That would be ahead of the most optimistic plans.

We watch the action on top of one occupied house, viewing the progression of Marines through the Fallujah neighborhoods like some 18th century general.

The day seems to be going along pretty well. But later signs appear that this isn't going to be the neat, antiseptic fight that it looked like it might be at first. We get word of a casualty, and a stretcher with a wounded Marine is pulled out of one alley.

Later, we find ourselves on yet another roof for an end-of-day officers' meeting with Chontosh. As sniper fire flies overhead, the Marines get word that a group of 15 to 20 militants are roving around a neighborhood a few blocks away.

As I quickly learn, Chontosh (who won an award for bravery in last year’s initial invasion of Iraq) is not one to sit back and let his guys do the dirty work. Moments later we are out on the street, heading for potential trouble.

Make that REAL trouble.

By the time we make it to the heart of the neighborhood, the unit is caught in three-way sniper fire. But the sun is setting. The decision is made to come back the next day and finish the folks off.

Little did we know what would come.

Thursday: Nov. 11

Before the big push to rout the bad guys from that tough neighborhood, Capt. Chontosh thinks it might be instructive for us to visit a little bit of the handiwork of the insurgents who ran Fallujah for the last several months.

At a house uncovered by Marines the day before, we see the bodies of Iraqi men — one in the living room, one in the dining room, one in the kitchen, etc. Five of them. Each man has a bullet in the back of his head.

The Marines' take is that the dead were civilians being used by insurgents as human shields (the word put out prior to the invasion by the U.S. military was that if you stayed in your house without weapons you wouldn't be hurt). The Marines believe the insurgents saw the Americans coming and decided these guys weren't going to help so they blew them away, locked the door of the house and fled.

They are the first of literally dozens of dead bodies we see in the coming days. I've experienced my fair share of seeing corpses covering the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the '90s, but it's still something you don't really get used to.

I do a stand-up report amid a pile of rubble. Later, cameraman Pierre says, "Greg ... did you know you were standing on somebody while you were speaking?"

But now, we're about to walk into real-time terror.

In another neighborhood, the young men of 2nd Squad — whom we've gotten to know pretty well in the last few days — come face to face with the enemy.

Second Lt. J.P. Blecksmith, the commander of the squad's platoon, is killed by a sniper.

Lance Cpl. Klayton South (the "Red Bull" guy) is badly injured by a fat, armed insurgent greeting him with AK-47 fire from behind a door opened by the squad. Others get hurt.

We rush to the scene. Seeing somebody you had been joking with the day before being carried out of a house on a stretcher brings everything into sharp clarity.

Looking at an injured fellow's bloody flak jacket and vest stays with you.

Watching the belongings of someone who has been killed being packed away to be shipped back to family in the States underscores that this is all as serious as it gets.

A few squad members are very shaken and two have to be pulled out of the action. The rest, outwardly at least, seem pretty stoic, ready to press on and get the job done.

When I ask Chontosh what he feels about the day's losses, the captain almost seems annoyed at the question.

"How does it feel to lose a good man?" I ask. Without missing a beat, but also not looking at me, staring at the scene where a sniper cut down one of his commanders, he snaps, "Any man going down."

Friday: Nov. 12

Capt. Chontosh denies there is any notion of payback regarding what will happen this day. And he also dodges a question about whether his strategy has been at all altered by Thursday's terrible events.

But something sure seems different.

India Company still hasn't cleared out the neighborhood where the militants were first spotted on Wednesday. And the hope to wrap up India's assault early is long forgotten.

Now the Marines are going to level a neighborhood to make sure the bad guys never use it again. It isn't quite the "destroying a village to save it" formula of the Vietnam War, but it comes close.

Air strikes, tank fire and mortar barrages make minced meat out of school buildings and houses. When the dust clears and the rubble stops falling, Chontosh takes us on a tour of the place.

His instincts are pretty good. We go into a room in a schoolhouse knee-deep in insurgent weaponry. There isn't a schoolbook in sight. No school buses in the courtyard ... just a vehicle rocket launcher.

And in the houses all around, Marines pull anti-personnel and tank mines out of one place, rockets out of another, a complete IED factory in the bedroom of a third.

And there's one other thing we come across this day: Fallujah citizens.

Most of the 250,000 residents of Fallujah knew what was coming and got out of Dodge. But some stayed, including a family claiming it is being held by insurgents in one house.

It's otherworldly to see the young girls and boys in the group laughing and joking as if no maelstrom had smashed through their neighborhood. With no electricity and water, it is hard to imagine how they'll get by in the coming days.

Saturday: Nov. 13

Progress is being made but slower than Marines hoped. Amid some grousing in the ranks about other units that have already been through the area, the Marines we're with think their brothers did a less-than-perfect job of clearing out the place of bad guys.

Lt. Sven Jensen, who has been heading India Company's Weapons Platoon, is dispatched to handle the 3rd Platoon (the one our 2nd Squad is a part of), which had been commanded by Blecksmith.

His men come across more insurgents holding out in an allegedly secured house.

More Marines are injured, including Jensen, who is hit by fragments from grenades hurled by insurgents from the roof of the building. Jensen limps away, and within a day claims he's at 95 percent strength. "I can even run on the leg!" he proclaims to me.

Not good enough. Capt. Chontosh takes him out of the fight.

And there's more grousing about the Iraqi security forces who will have to take a major role in making sure Fallujah works in the future. Some of their units are filling in behind other American squads that have done the heavy lifting. Without proper radios or other equipment they are blamed more for getting in the way then helping out, even firing around U.S. military forces.

One of the officers in charge of training the Iraqis tells me the brass wants a full Iraqi Army up and running in six months. "It's not going to happen," he complains.

Sounds like our Marines are going to be sticking around.

Sunday: Nov. 14

Spend the morning with my friends in 2nd Squad. Haven't been with them in a few days.

Since I last bashed through doors with them, they'd been through a few hundred more houses. We cross "Route Michigan" with them, a critical east-west artery through Fallujah, which really means that India Company is closing in on its goal.

I'd like to say these guys are fresh and raring to finish the job. But to be frank, our boys look like toast. Some still haven't gotten over the losses of the days before. And all are a lot more careful as they work through every house.

They still have time, though, to go through some mail, which has somehow found its way into the heart of this terror enclave. Lance Cpl. Jelnick reads me his girlfriend's letter. There isn't anything extraordinary in it.

What is extraordinary, however, is that she has written him a letter every day he has been in Iraq.

The 20-year-old Chicago Cubs fan is comforted, but also filled with the feeling that maybe he'll have to get serious about her when he gets out of all this. Eeek ... love! Sometimes trickier than dealing with insurgents.

In the afternoon we attend the first photo op of the assault, the opening up of the old Fallujah bridge. It had been open only to military traffic, but the creaky metal span over the Euphrates River carries a ton of political baggage. It's really why there's been all of this fighting in Fallujah this year (the current battle plus the aborted assault in April).

It was from this bridge that the mutilated bodies of murdered American workers were hanged.

While Fallujans cheered, you could still see two metal hooks at one end that might have been used for that purpose. Now, in addition to that, there is some scrawled graffiti on one girder. To paraphrase, it basically says: "The Marines are here. You bad guys aren't!"

Monday: Nov. 15

The day starts like most others. We check out mosques that Marines believe have been used by insurgents as terror "bed and breakfasts" — sleeping places and medical stations for use between attacks.

Marines also find plans and propaganda associated with attacks. Right down to some maps.

Then another platoon marches off to check out one last bunch of houses.

India Company literally is just a few blocks from finishing its chunk of the assault. But its Marines are about to walk into a terror hornet's nest as bad as any military unit will find in the operation in Fallujah.

Back at India Company's makeshift headquarters, a fateful word crackled over the radio: "Contact!"

Some members of the platoon enter yet another house, another hiding place for some insurgents. The bad guys open up fire. So do the Marines.

Lance Cpl. Antoine Smith is killed. Others are hurt. The enemy takes its losses, too — some die, but others get away.

That's when Chontosh springs into action — again.

When he gets to the scene, he calls in heavy tank fire, then air strikes, and finally he goes in himself with many other India Company Marines backing him up.

He hits a house, backs up, calls in more heavy fire, then hits it again. And again.

Chontosh tells me about his most memorable moment of this encounter. He had walked up the stairs of one house, looked through a window at the landing of the stairs, and saw 10 feet away five insurgents huddling on the floor of the room.

Chontosh fired, more than happy to try and finish them off. But it wasn't good enough. He called in more heavy fire to finish it off.

The battle would last some seven hours.

By Chontosh's estimate, close to 100 rebels were holed up there. At least 22 were killed, maybe more, close to 50 are detained. Others got away.

Tuesday: Nov.16

Early in the morning, I walk with Capt. Chontosh as he takes in what is left of the battlefield. Houses are reduced to rubble and many contain dead insurgents while some have remnants of fallen Marines.

"I don't get any satisfaction from this," Chontosh says. Shrugging off any deeper political import to his mission, he says simply: "I do it for my men. This is what I live for."

All told for India Company, during the weeklong initial offensive, three Marines die and 22 are hurt in action, 13 of them seriously.

And it's not over. India Company will have to stay to help bring the civilians back and try and put the city back together again. All of that, of course, will be filled with more dangers — combat and noncombat.

As we leave, the Marines give us a choice. We can either ride out in an armored vehicle or a flat-bed open truck. My choice would have been the armored vehicle as it offers more protection from snipers and other attacks.

But Pierre, my cameraman, picks the open truck, because our equipment is stacked up in it and he wants to keep an eye on it.

As we roll along the highway putting the immediate dangers of Fallujah behind us, the driver of the armored vehicle loses control of the steering, throwing it into ditch and injuring three inside.

The Fallujah assault claims three more victims.

The words of Lance Cpl. Klayton South well before this thing started comes back to me. "This is 'Big Boy' stuff. It's not the Girl Scouts."

It certainly isn't. We'll be thinking about these guys and the task they've accomplished — and still face — for a long time to come.

Watch the FOX News Channel on Sunday at 9 p.m. EST for a Breaking Point special about the eight-day fight in Fallujah. And click here for a list of organizations designed to help U.S. troops and their families.

Greg Palkot currently serves as a London-based senior foreign affairs correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 1998 as a correspondent.