Fresh U.S. troops arrive in Iraq on eve of expected showdown in Fallujah
Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Gunmen assassinated Baghdad’s deputy governor on Monday, and voter registration for vital January elections began as fresh American soldiers arrived in the capital – reinforcements that will push U.S. military strength in Iraq to its highest level since the summer of 2003.
West of the capital, U.S. troops clashed with Sunni insurgents, and American artillery pounded suspected insurgent positions in Fallujah, witnesses said. U.S. forces are gearing up for a major offensive in Fallujah if Iraqi mediation fails to win agreement to hand over foreign Arab fighters and other militants.
U.S. and Iraqi officials hope to curb the insurgency in Sunni insurgent strongholds in time for national elections by the end of January. The order to launch what would likely be a bloody assault must come from Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who warned Sunday that his patience with negotiations was thinning.
Voter registration for the January balloting began Monday. In order to provide enough security for the voting, Army units slated to depart are being held back until after the election. The delays in departures and the arrival of new units will push the total U.S. military presence in Iraq to around 142,000.
In the capital, gunmen opened fire on a car carrying Baghdad province’s deputy governor, Hatim Kamil, to work Monday morning, killing Kamil, said Baghdad Governor Ali al-Haidari. Two of Kamil’s bodyguards were wounded, Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman said.
A known militant group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, claimed responsibility for Kamil’s murder.
“This is the fate of whoever is aiding or supporting the crusaders against the Muslims and mujahedeen,” the group said in a statement posted on their Web site. It was impossible to verify the claim’s authenticity.
Insurgents have killed dozens of Iraqi politicians and government workers in recent months in a bid to destabilize the country’s reconstruction.
The group also said it carried out the assassination of the deputy governor of Diyala province on Friday in the central Iraqi city of Baqouba. Aqil Hamid al-Adili, the assistant to the governor for projects affairs, was killed by unidentified gunmen as he was sitting in a friend’s office .
Last week, al-Adili warned of insurgent infiltration in the Iraqi security services after the deadly ambush of 50 U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers Oct. 23 in an eastern part of Diyala province near the Iran border.
The unarmed soldiers, dressed in civilian clothing, had been heading home on leave when they were stopped at a fake rebel checkpoint Saturday and killed execution-style.
Allawi cited that attack in televised comments to journalists on Sunday in which he insisted “terrorists” behind some of Iraq’s worst violence must be uprooted from Fallujah.
In a speech that seemed aimed at preparing the Iraqi public for an onslaught, Allawi warned of civilian casualties, saying that if he orders an assault, it would be with a “heavy heart.”
“But I owe, owe it to the Iraqi people to defend them from the violence and the terrorists and insurgents,” he said. Commanders have estimated that up to 5,000 Islamic militants, Saddam Hussein loyalists and common criminals are holed up in Fallujah.
In a position that appeared to contrast with Allawi’s, the country’s interim president said a military assault was the wrong solution, according to an interview published Monday.
President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni Muslim, told the Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas that dialogue must continue and that insurgents “want nothing but a military solution, and the continuation of bleeding among Iraqis.”
Meanwhile, heavy clashes between U.S. forces and insurgents continued Monday in Ramadi, an insurgent stronghold 70 miles west of Baghdad.
A bomb in Ramadi on Sunday killed one Marine and wounded four others, the military said. The blast brought to nine the number of Marines killed in the area over the weekend. At least 1,121 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an AP count.
In Monday’s fighting in Ramadi, one woman was killed and her two children injured, hospital officials said.
Also killed was an Iraqi freelance television cameraman who provided material to Associated Press Television News – believed to be the 24 journalist killed in Iraq this year.
Diaa Najm, in his early 40s, was fatally injured by bullets in the head and the back, police Capt. Naser Abdullah said. His body lay in the street for nearly an hour before rescuers could retrieve it, witnesses said.
The rumble of strong but distant explosions echoed through central Baghdad throughout the day Monday and the roar of U.S. jets could be heard in the overcast skies.
At Camp Victory North, the sprawling headquarters of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, the mess hall and housing trailers were brimming to capacity with the arrival of the 3,700-member Louisiana-based 256th Enhanced Separate Brigade, a National Guard unit that has been rolling into the Iraqi capital over the past few days.
The arrival of the 256th was supposed to have been timed with the departure of the 1st Cavalry’s 2nd Brigade, which was scheduled to prepare to return to Fort Hood, Texas, in November. But the Pentagon delayed the 2nd Brigade’s departure by two months, military officials said.
The newly arriving troops leave Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, commander of the 1st Cavalry, in charge of eight Army brigades – or more than 32,000 soldiers.
The five elemental brigades of Chiarelli’s division were expected to begin the process of pulling out of Iraq in late January, after the return of the Army’s Georgia-based 3rd Infantry Division, which arrives for its second tour in Iraq. The 3rd Infantry led the charge to Baghdad and captured the city in April 2003.
Three brigades under Chiarelli’s command will stay behind in Iraq: the 256th, the Arkansas-based 39th Enhanced Separate Brigade and the 2nd Brigade of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, New York.