Marines hunt down Fallujah's strays to head off rabies threat

12-10-2004, 03h35

US troops fire off another volley of shots amid the trashed houses of Fallujah, hunting down new adversaries carrying a potentially deadly weapon that threatens to plague reconstruction efforts.

But this time the marines are not chasing down the insurgents who they defeated in a devastating assault on the city last month. Their quarry is stray animals grown fat on the flesh from corpses and who could harbor rabies.

The marines gather briefly over a pile of trash, one pointing across the dirt lot to a row of burned out homes where moments before a dog was seen loping for cover amid the ruined buildings.

"I think we wounded a couple and they took off that way," he said, as another marine pulled his quarry onto a ridge, its bloodied head rolling side to side in the dust.

As their numbers have swelled, so has the risk the animals pose to the tens of thousands of people expected to return to Fallujah in the coming weeks. The marines have been told to organize special details to "thin out" the battered city's animal population.

Medical personnel say rabies is one of the biggest threats to people returning to the city. Cases of the disease were already reported in humans in Al-Anbar province before the Fallujah attack.

"Rabies, and standing water, are our most immediate concerns," said Captain Dennis Staggs, a surgeon with the 1st Marine Exepditionary Force (MEF), adding that among a host of measures suggested to head off a health crisis, medical officers said feral animals should be cleared from the city.

"If you consider the entire public health situation, with nobody in town, there's no public health crisis, and if it is prepared correctly there won't be a health crisis," Staggs said Wednesday.

Standing by his humvee last week in northern Fallujah, marine Lance Corporal Will Lathrop of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit said, "The problem has gotten bad enough that there's actually an order for this," referring to a command issued recently to deal with Fallujah's feral animals.

His convoy of three humvees and a truck had rolled briefly into the school occupied by 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines' Charlie Company and several men with shotguns stood around the vehicles smoking.

Rock-n-roll played loudly from one of the vehicle's radios as marines just outside the base walls fired off several more shots at flashes of fur among the piles of rubble.

It was a good day for this self-described "goon squad" -- a dozen or so black plastic trash bags heavy with dead animals were dumped unceremoniously in the back of a truck.

"It eliminates the threat," marine Lieutenant Lyle Gilbert, spokesman for the 1st MEF, said Wednesday.

"Before they (residents) go into the city, dogs and cats probably should be cleared out. They're a source of rabies and other diseases."

But there was none of the bloodlust that many marines say they felt last month as they stormed the Sunni-Muslim enclave and wrested it away from insurgents during several days of vicious fighting.

A gunnery sergeant stalked past the convoy, tersely ordering his executioners to put on surgical gloves before handling the dead animals, his mouth pulled into the tight grimace of a man trying to finish the job before him as quickly as possible.

"This is hard on these guys, especially killing the dogs. But these animals have been eating dead bodies. They can spread disease," said Lieutenant Aaron Brown, grimly reciting the toll for the day -- several cats and at least one dog.