Fighting sweeps Iraq’s Sunni Muslim heartland
Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Fierce battles between insurgents and U.S. and Iraqi forces killed at least 27 people Monday in Baqouba and south of Baghdad – the latest in a wave of clashes that has swept Iraq’s Sunni Muslim heartland even as American forces move against the last remaining pockets of resistance in Fallujah.
A convoy of ambulances and relief supplies trying to enter Fallujah was forced to turn back because the fighting made it too dangerous, the head of the Iraqi Red Crescent said. The Red Crescent and Red Cross have been unable to gain access to people inside Fallujah during more than a week of violence.
Even as the fighting continued in the city, Iraq’s interior minister declared victory in the offensive. “Fallujah is no more a safe haven for the terrorists and killers. This thing is over,” Falah Hassan al-Naqib told reporters in Baghdad.
Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said the leader of a militant group behind the killing of some foreign hostages had been captured. Moayad Ahmed Yasseen, leader of the group Muhammad’s Army, was captured along with an unspecified number of his followers, Allawi said. He did not say how many members of the group were captured or what kidnappings the group has been involved in.
Allawi’s office confirmed that two of his female relatives who were kidnapped last week have been released. Allawi’s cousin, Ghazi Allawi, 75, his cousin’s wife and his cousin’s pregnant daughter-in-law were abducted at gunpoint last Tuesday in western Baghdad’s Yarmouk neighborhood. There was no word on the cousin.
On Sunday, U.S. Marines found the disemboweled body of a Western woman wrapped in a blood-soaked blanket on a street in Fallujah. The woman could not be immediately identified, but the only Western women known to have been taken hostage are Briton Margaret Hassan, 59, director of CARE international in Iraq, and Teresa Borcz Khalifa, 54, a Polish-born longtime resident of Iraq.
Outside Fallujah, U.S. and Iraqi troops and insurgents clashed in several cities across a belt of central and northern Iraq, including Baqouba, Ramadi, Mosul and Suwayrah, south of Baghdad.
In Baqouba, insurgents attacked 1st Infantry Division soldiers with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire near a traffic circle and police station, officials said.
During the fighting, U.S. troops came under fire from a mosque, the U.S. military said. Iraqi security stormed the mosque and found rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds and other weapons and ammunition, the statement said.
In the neighboring town of Buhriz, militants killed the town police chief, Lt. Gen Qassem Mohammed, in an attack on his house, officials said. During fighting in Buhriz and Baqouba, American aircraft dropped two 500 pound bombs on an insurgent position.
A U.S. military spokesman said at least 20 insurgents were killed, although battle reports were still being assessed.
Mohammed Zayad of the Baqouba hospital said nine Iraqis – ane attacker, a policeman and seven civilians – were killed and 11 Iraqis were injured in the fighting. It was not clear to what extent his count overlapped with the U.S. count of 20 insurgents killed. Four 1st Infantry Division soldiers were wounded, although two of them returned to duty, the military said.
In Suwayrah, gunmen carried out near-simultaneous attacks on a police station and an Iraqi National Guard headquarters. The assault came after an attacker drove an explosives-laden car at the headquarters. Police shot the driver before he could detonate his bomb, police said.
Seven Iraqi police and national guardsmen were killed in the Suwayrah fighting, including Maj. Hadi Refeidi, the director of the Suwayrah police station, officials said.
The week-old offensive in Fallujah, the city that came to symbolize resistance to the U.S.-led occupation, has left at least 38 American troops and six Iraqi soldiers dead. The number of U.S. troops wounded is now 275, though more than 60 have returned to duty. U.S. officials estimated more than 1,200 insurgents have been killed.
On Monday, U.S. forces resumed heavy airstrikes and artillery fire, with warplanes making between 20-30 bombing sorties in Fallujah and surrounding areas. U.S. ground forces were trying to corner the remaining resistance in the city.
American forces had attacked a bunker complex Sunday in the city’s south where they discovered a network of steel-reinforced tunnels and underground bunkers. The tunnels connected a ring of facilities filled with weapons, an anti-aircraft artillery gun, bunk beds and a truck, according to a statement from the U.S. military.
Civilians seeking medical care were told through loudspeakers and leaflets to contact U.S. troops.
In Geneva, the Baghdad spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Ahmed Rawi, said Monday an Iraqi Red Crescent convoy of four ambulances and four trucks carrying supplies reached Fallujah General Hospital on the city’s outskirts, but was unable to go further.
Ismail al-Haqi, director of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, said he had decided it was too dangerous for the convoy to proceed into the city.
“I can’t sacrifice the lives of the volunteers; it is very dangerous to go inside Fallujah now and we preferred not to enter,” al-Haqi said.
He denied an earlier statement by the Red Crescent that U.S. forces and Iraqi officials turned back the convoy.
Rawi said there were no patients at Fallujah General Hospital and that medical supplies there had gone unused throughout the violence because no one was able to reach the facility. The hospital is in U.S.-Iraqi hands, across the Euphrates River from the main part of the city.
In an interview with The Associated Press, the Marine general who designed the ground attack on Fallujah said it had gone far more quickly than expected and that troops had fought their way across the city in just six days.
Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski on Sunday described the ground war as a “flawless execution of the plan we drew up. We are actually ahead of schedule.”
Al-Naqib, the Iraqi interior minister, vowed a crackdown on those who incite attacks on Iraqi security forces or urge them to leave their positions – a likely reference to hard-line clerics who say Iraqis should not join the security forces.
“These have committed the crime of great treason, great treason to the country,” al-Naqib said. “What’s going on is a plan … to divide this country and thrust it into a civil war … There will be no laxity with these.”
Insurgent attacks escalated elsewhere in Sunni Muslim areas of Iraq.
In the insurgent-heavy city of Ramadi, 70 miles west of the capital, heavy fighting erupted on Monday between militants and U.S. forces, residents said.
Sunni clerics at several mosques called on residents to kick out bands of armed men who have come from outside the city, claiming that the clashes inside Ramada are having a negative impact on the economic situation of citizens.
In Mosul, where an uprising broke out last week in support of the Fallujah defenders, a suicide driver tried to ram his bomb-laden vehicle into a U.S. convoy, the military said. He missed but set off the explosives, wounding five soldiers, four of them lightly. A second car then tried to approach the same patrol, but the troops opened fire, killing the driver, the military said.
Militants raided two Mosul police stations Sunday, killing at least six Iraqi National Guards and wounding three others before Iraqi security forces regained control of both stations.
Associated Press reporters Edward Harris in Fallujah and Robert H. Reid, Sameer N. Yacoub, Mariam Fam, Sabah Jerges, Katarina Kratovac and Maggie Michael in Baghdad contributed to this report.