U.S. Commander: ‘The city has been seized’
NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq – U.S. and Iraqi security forces scoured Fallujah for remaining fighters and pounded the southernmost neighborhoods of the city with heavy artillery and bombs late into Sunday night, as military commanders declared victory seven days after launching the largest military operation since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last year.
“The city has been seized,” said Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. “We have liberated the city of Fallujah.”
The military said 38 U.S. troops had been killed and 275 wounded since the offensive operation began Nov. 7. Three of the fatalities resulted from non-combat injuries. Six Iraqi soldiers have been killed and more than 40 wounded. Military commanders estimated that 1,000 to 1,200 insurgent have been killed.
Marines found the mutilated body of a Western woman Sunday in a street as they searched for the remaining fighters, the Associated Press reported. The disemboweled body, which could not be immediately identified, was wrapped in a blood-soaked blanket, the Marines said.
Two Western women abducted last month from Baghdad are known to be missing. Margaret Hassan, 59, director of CARE International in Iraq, and Teresa Borcz Khalifa, 54, a Polish-born longtime resident of Iraq, were both taken at gunpoint.
Marine units engaged fighters throughout the day, poking at what Sattler called “isolated pockets of enemy resisters.”
“If they are trapped and isolated and want to fight till the death, we’ll have no choice but to accommodate them,” he said.
With Iraqi soldiers following closely behind, the Marines went door-to-door Sunday, searching for fighters and stockpiles of weapons. A day earlier, advancing Army units found evidence of a highly trained and well-organized fighting force dressed in professional military uniforms.
“The enemy is broken into very small groups,” Sattler said during a visit with wounded troops Sunday at a Naval field hospital outside the city, about 35 miles west of Baghdad. “They don’t have eyes. They can’t see outside. They are truly broken into isolated pockets.”
A U.S. official in Baghdad said most of the fighters carried no identification.
“The normal Iraqi would carry minimal identification, ID cards at least. Food ration card or something,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “These people are carrying nothing.”
U.S. and Iraqi forces have detained more than 1,000 military-age males since the battle started, and Sattler said he expected two-thirds would be questioned and freed.
U.S. forces failed to capture Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of a group linked to al-Qaida that has claimed responsibility for numerous car bombings targeting Iraqi civilians and security forces, assassinations of local leaders and beheadings of foreign hostages.
“I feel we really had an impact,” on al-Zarqawi’s network, Sattler said. “We don’t know where he is. Maybe he’s dead and we don’t know. We weren’t really focused on him.”
Iraqi soldiers who participated in the battle said Sunday that they also felt confident that the insurgency had been broken.
“They cannot move,” said a 22-year-old soldier from the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad who gave his name only as named Ahmed. He had been shot in his left shoulder and was recovering at an Iraqi army base outside the city. “We destroyed the head of the snake, their leaders,” he said. “They don’t have anyone to lead them.”
Although Iraqi forces fought mainly in the rear of advancing U.S. troops, they were responsible for keeping areas clear after the Americans pushed through, a role military commanders said would remain vitally important after the official combat operation had ended.
Sattler said U.S. forces would keep a “hand on the shoulder” of the Iraqi security forces.
The U.S. official in Baghdad said the Fallujah battle was nearly over. “There are some groups still fighting but it’s pretty much the end of the game. It is clearly not a battle that is going to go on for days and day and days.”
Staff writer Karl Vick in Baghdad and special correspondent Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report.