Black Flags Are Deadly Signals as Cornered Rebels Fight Back

ALLUJA, Iraq, Nov. 11 - The stars began to glimmer through a wan yellow-gray sunset over Falluja on Thursday evening. The floury dust in the air and a skyline of broken minarets and smashed buildings combined for the only genuine postcard image this country has to offer for now.

Sitting on a third-story roof, Staff Sgt. Eric Brown, his lip bleeding, peered through the scope of his rifle into the haze. Moments before, a lone bullet had whizzed past his face and smashed a window behind him. "God, I hate this place, the way the sun sets," Sergeant Brown said.

Sgt. Sam Williams said, "I wish I could see down the street."

But these marines did see a black flag pop up all at once above a water tower about 100 yards away, then a second flag somewhere in the gloaming above a rooftop. And the shots began, in a wave this time, as men bobbed and weaved through alleyways and sprinted across the street. "He's in the road, he's in the road, shoot him!" Sergeant Brown shouted. "Black shirt!" someone else yelled. "Due south!"

The flags are the insurgents' answer to two-way radios, their way of massing the troops and - in a tactic that goes back at least as far as Napoleon - concentrating fire on an enemy. Set against radio waves, the flags have one distinct advantage: they are terrifying.

The insurgents are coordinating their attacks at a time when they have nowhere left to run. American forces have pushed south of Highway 10, the boulevard that runs east to west and approximately bisects Falluja. American intelligence officers believe that many of the insurgents have retreated as far as the Shuhada, a relatively modern residential area that is the southernmost neighborhood in Falluja.

But beyond Shuhada is only the open desert, patrolled by the United States Army. So the insurgents are turning and fighting. And at night, they are setting up deadly ambushes in the moonless pitch blackness of Falluja's labyrinthine streets.

Going straight up the gut in the center of the American advance on Thursday was Bravo Company, First Battalion, Eighth Regiment of the First Marine Expeditionary Force. Those marines, including Sergeants Brown and Williams, started their day by getting mortared in a building they had captured at Highway 10 and Thurthar Street.

The building's windows were blown out. Parts of the ceiling had collapsed. The mortars drew closer and closer and then stopped, as if the insurgents were temporarily short of ammo. "I thought, 'This is it,' " said Senior Corpsman Kevin Markley.

At about 2 p.m., the company walked 100 yards east along the highway, then turned south into the Sinai neighborhood, with its car garages and fix-it shops as well as concealed weapons caches and bomb-making factories.

Immediately, shooting broke out, pinning down the marines for an hour. Finally they moved south to a mosque with the stub of a blasted minaret. An armored vehicle drove up from the rear and dropped its hatch. Out walked a group of blinking, disoriented Iraqi national guardsmen. They had been brought in only to search mosques.

Meantime, the marines went to the rooftop, saw the flags and got into a firefight. It was silenced when they called in a 500-pound bomb from above onto a house where some of the insurgents had concentrated. The strike was so close that the marines had to leave the roof or risk being killed by shrapnel.

The Iraqi guardsmen left the mosque and trooped back into the vehicle, which drove off. Soon the marines were headed south again, through a narrow alley between deserted houses.

"Enemy personnel approaching your position in white vehicle with RPG's," someone said over a radio, referring to rocket-propelled grenades. A few seconds later, the same voice said: "More enemy personnel approaching your position from the south."

The alley exploded with gunfire and RPG rounds. Somehow the company commander, Capt. Read Omohundro, got two tanks in place to fire down the alley. They let loose with a volley and a building crumbled.

Captain Omohundro turned to a lieutenant and said, "Are they dead?"

"They must be, sir," came the reply.

But the insurgents had gotten off an RPG round and disabled one tank; the other tank mysteriously stopped working as well.

The company had moved 500 yards south. They regrouped in the pitch blackness and pushed on at about 11:30 p.m. without the tanks, trying to keep up with the rest of the front, but after moving 25 feet they were attacked again in what appeared to be a well-organized ambush.

Two more tanks came in, but one had a problem with its global-positioning system unit. There was an hour's delay. The 50 or so men of the First Platoon, which had taken casualties, started bickering. Then they moved forward, behind the tanks.

At 1:30 a.m., now roughly 700 yards south of Highway 10, they stopped and entered a house, intending to find a place to sleep. There was a huge boom inside. "Oh no! Oh no!" someone shouted. "My leg!" someone else screamed. "My leg!"

They looked further around the house and found tunnels underneath. They retreated and a tank fired rounds into the house, which caught fire.

They looked for another place to sleep.