70 percent of Fallujah under U.S. control
NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq – U.S. Marines said American forces had taken control this morning of 70 percent of Fallujah in the third day of a major offensive to retake the insurgent stronghold.
Major Francis Piccoli, of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said enemy fighters were bottled up in a strip of the city flanking the major east-west highway that splits Fallujah.
Army and Marine units had pushed south to the highway overnight, Piccoli said.
“There’s going to be a movement today in those areas. The heart of the city is what’s in focus now,” he said.
The military said at least 71 militants were killed in intense urban combat in the city’s deserted and narrow lanes, but the number was expected to rise sharply once U.S. forces account for those killed in airstrikes.
As of Tuesday night, 10 U.S. troops and two members of the Iraqi security force had been killed, a toll that already equaled the number of American troops who died when Marines besieged the city for three weeks in April.
Marine reports today said 25 American troops and 16 Iraqi soldiers were wounded.
As the American forces crossed the highway that split Fallujah, armored Army units stayed behind to guard the thoroughfare.
The military reported no heavy fighting overnight, but a U.S. attack helicopter wiped out an insurgent rocket launcher southwest of Fallujah.
Earlier, as many as eight attack aircraft – including jets and helicopter gunships – blasted guerrilla strongholds and raked the streets with rocket, cannon and machine-gun fire ahead of U.S. and Iraqi infantry who were advancing only one or two blocks behind the curtain of fire.
Small groups of guerrillas, armed with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machine guns, engaged U.S. troops, then fell back. U.S. troops inspected houses along Fallujah’s streets and ran across adjoining alleyways, mindful of snipers.
A psychological operations unit broadcast announcements in Arabic meant to draw out gunmen. An Iraqi translator from the group said through a loudspeaker: “Brave terrorists, I am waiting here for the brave terrorists. Come and kill us. Plant small bombs on roadsides. Attention, attention, terrorists of Fallujah.”
Faced with overwhelming force, resistance in Fallujah did not appear as fierce as expected, though the top U.S. commander in Iraq said he still expected “several more days of tough urban fighting” as insurgents fell back toward the southern end of the city, perhaps for a last stand.
Some U.S. military officers estimated they controlled about a third of the city. Commanders said they had not fully secured the northern half of Fallujah but were well on their way as American and Iraqi troops searched for insurgents.
U.S. and Iraqi troops captured two key landmarks Tuesday – a mosque and neighboring convention center that insurgents used for launching attacks, according to a Los Angeles Times reporter embedded with U.S. forces.
“I’m surprised how quickly (resistance) broke and how quickly they ran away, a force of foreign fighters who were supposed to fight to the death,” Lt. Col. Pete Newell, a battalion commander in the 1st Infantry Division, told CNN.
Newell was quoted on CNN’s Web site as saying his battalion had killed or wounded 85 to 90 insurgents.
The move against Fallujah prompted influential Sunni Muslim clerics to call for a boycott of national elections set for January. A widespread boycott among Sunnis could wreck the legitimacy of the elections, seen as vital in Iraq’s move to democracy. U.S. commanders have said the Fallujah invasion is the centerpiece of an attempt to secure insurgent-held areas so voting can be held.
Prime Minister Ayad Allawi declared a nighttime curfew in Baghdad and its surroundings to prevent insurgents from opening up a “second front” to try to draw American forces away from Fallujah. Clashes erupted in the northern city of Mosul and near the Sunni bastion of Ramadi.