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Afghan firefight shows challenge for US troops

NOW ZAD, Afghanistan -- The vehicles were heading to inspect a suspected tunnel when the Taliban struck, firing mortars that landed close by. Machine gunners atop the vehicles and troops in an open-sided truck scanned the scene for plumes from weapons fire.

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Published online on Sunday, Jun. 21, 2009
By CHRIS BRUMMITT - Associated Press Writer

"We're taking fire from both sides here!" Lance Cpl. James Yon yelled.

"Hit 'em Yon!" came the call from below.

Hours of exchanges followed, with the Taliban opening fire with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, machine-gun fire and rockets from the orchards or inside walled compounds.

A mortar punctured the tire of a Humvee; a grenade swooshed just over a troop truck.

"That was close," Daly said. "If they were a better shot, we'd be canceling Christmas."

Each time the insurgents attacked, the Marines returned fire if they could spot their foes or radioed in coordinates for air strikes.

"Bombs are away," a voice crackled over the radio as Dutch fighter jets dropped laser-guided bombs on a compound, sending clouds of dust mushrooming into the air. The planes then strafed the position, leaving a line of fire and destruction 50 yards long. Other times mortar teams back at the base in Now Zad pummeled enemy positions.

The Marines left their vehicles twice. Each time, they came under attack as they entered maze-like, high-walled compounds with ill-fitting, aging wooden doors and small windows, ideal for sniper positions.

In the late afternoon, U.S. forces fired two missiles from 55 miles away to hit a compound being used by the attackers. Minutes later, Marine Harrier jets strafed the compound, setting fire to a wheat field outside it but sparing a poppy patch - an irony not lost on the troops.

The Marines got their final close call as they assessed the compound for damage.

After blowing a hole through the wall, Medlin and Daly were met by a hail of bullets as they pressed up an alley.

"Gunner, are you good? You need to come back!" one Marine shouted into the gathering gloom. "I'll cover you!"

The two man leapt to safety. Daly sprained his ankle as he leapt from a wall, but that was the only Marine injury.

Twenty minutes after the troops withdrew, two Cobra helicopters fired a Hellfire missile that streaked at a 45-degree angle across the night sky into the building, then bombed and strafed it, igniting a blaze.

"Payback time," one Marine muttered in the dark of a truck; cheers erupted in another vehicle.

There were no confirmed Taliban casualties, but observers later spotted a funeral, and video images suggested others were killed in the aerial attacks.

Capt. Zachary Martin said such sustained contact sent the militants a message that they were not safe anywhere and bought the Marines - and the few civilians in the area - some "security space."

"We kicked the snot out of these guys," he told the Marines on their return to base, some 14 hours after they left.