U.S. forces launch attack into southern Fallujah
Associated Press Writer
FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) – U.S. forces backed by an air and artillery barrage launched a major attack Thursday into the southern half of Fallujah, trying to choke Sunni fighters in a shrinking cordon. The military estimated 600 insurgents have been killed in the offensive but said success in the city won’t break Iraq’s insurgency.
The military said 18 Americans have been killed and 178 wounded in the Fallujah campaign, now in its fourth day, along with five allied Iraqi soldiers killed and 34 wounded. Staff at the main U.S. military hospital in Europe, at Landstuhl, Germany, were bringing in new beds to deal with a stream of wounded.
In northern Iraq, violence escalated dramatically in Mosul, the country’s third biggest city, amid a campaign of stepped-up attacks by guerrillas aimed at diverting U.S.-Iraqi forces from Fallujah.
Gunmen in Mosul attacked and overwhelmed police stations and battled U.S. and Iraqi troops around bridges across the Tigris River, the military said. A Kurdish official said some Mosul police were cooperating with the militants. A U.S. military spokeswoman Capt. Angela Bowman said it could take “some time until we fully secure the city,” where a curfew was imposed a day earlier.
In Baghdad, a car bomb ripped through a crowded commercial street, killing 17 people, police said – the second deadly car bomb in the capital in as many days. People pulled bodies and bloodied survivors from the rubble a dozen mangled vehicles burned after the blast went off on Saadoun Street, moments after a U.S. patrol passed.
Since Monday, U.S. and Iraqi troops have been fighting their way through the northern half of Fallujah, reaching the east-west highway that bisects the city and battling pockets of fighters trapped in the north while other insurgents fell back into the south.
After sunset Thursday, U.S. soldiers and Marines launched their main assault across the central highway into Fallujah’s southern half after air and artillery barrages pummeled the sector throughout the day, the military said.
Sunni fighters in the sector appear to be trying desperately to break open an escape route through the U.S.-Iraqi cordon closing off Fallujah’s southern edge, commanders said. Insurgent mortar fire and attacks have focused on bridges and roads out of the city more than on U.S. troops descending from the north, they said.
Commanders say that since the offensive began, their seal around the city is tight and that fighters still inside have little chance of escape. Some 15,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops are involved in the cordon and the assault inside the city.
Military officials cautioned that the figure of 600 insurgents killed in the city was only a rough estimate.
Commanders said before the offensive that 1,200 to 3,000 fighters were believed holed up in the city. But the speed of the U.S. advance has led some officers on the ground to conclude that many guerrillas abandoned the city before the attack so they could fight elsewhere.
An Iraqi journalist still in Fallujah reported clashes around a market in a western district. Elsewhere he saw burned U.S. vehicles and bodies in the street. He said two men trying to move a corpse were shot down by a sniper.
Two of the three small clinics in the city have been bombed, and in one case, medical staff and patients killed, he said. A U.S. tank was positioned beside the third clinic.
“People are afraid of even looking out the window because of snipers,” he said, asking that he not be named for his own safety. “The Americans are shooting anything that moves.”
The number of civilian casualties in the city is not known. Most of the city’s 200,000-300,000 residents are thought to have fled before the offensive. Those remaining have endured days without electricity, frequent barrages and dwindling food supplies.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers called the offensive “very, very successful.”
Speaking on NBC’s “Today” show, he acknowledged that guerrillas will move their fight. “If anybody thinks that Fallujah is going to be the end of the insurgency in Iraq, that was never the objective.”
Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, commander of the 1st Marine Division in Fallujah, said the operation was “ahead of schedule.”
“Today our forces are conducting deliberate clearing operations within the city, moving from house to house” and searching for weapons and fighters, he said. He said arms caches have been found in “nearly every mosque in Fallujah.”
Two Marine Super Cobra attack helicopters were hit by ground fire and forced to land near Fallujah, the military said Thursday. The four crewmembers were rescued, and one had suffered light injuries.
At the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, staff were expanding bed capacity as 102 wounded U.S. servicemembers were flown in Thursday many – up from the usual 30 to 50 a day the U.S. military hospital receives. A day earlier, 69 wounded were brought in.
Natonski said he toured a house in Fallujah’s northern Jolan neighborhood where foreign hostages had been held and possibly killed by militants. Natonski described a small, windowless room with straw mats covered with blood on the floor. Also found were a computer and a wheelchair, likely used to move bound hostages, he said.
An Iraqi commander on Wednesday announced the discovery of the “hostage slaughterhouses” – though no hostages were reported found. Troops uncovered CDs showing beheadings and the black clothes of kidnappers. Officials have not said which hostages were believed held there or shown in the CDs.
In one building, troops also discovered an Iraqi man chained to a wall, the military said Thursday. The man – shackled at the ankles and wrists, bruised and starving – told Marines he was a taxi driver abducted 10 days ago.
The assault into southern Fallujah follows a day of sometimes fierce firefights as troops tried to clear bands of gunmen in the north.
In one of the most dramatic clashes Wednesday, an F-18 dropped a 500-pound bomb on the Khulafah al-Rashid mosque, destroying both minarets, after snipers fired on U.S. troops from the minarets. Insurgents in streets around the mosque kept up the fight, pinning troops down on a rooftop.
Meanwhile, rebels have continued heavy attacks elsewhere.
Gunmen and U.S.-Iraqi troops clashed in the central towns of Samarra and Mushahdah. A car bomb targeted the governor of Kirkuk in the north, and gunmen attacked the police chief of the southern province of Babil – though both men escaped unharmed. Two more car bombs went off in the southern town of Hillah, wounding eight people.
In Mosul, guerrillas attacked police stations, political offices and other targets. U.S. and Iraqi forces were battling gunmen hours later. Smoke was seen rising from several areas, and residents saw masked fighters roaming the streets, setting police cars on fire.
Five police stations were ransacked, said Capt. Bowman, the U.S spokeswoman.
“Iraqi police turned some stations over to the terrorists,” said Saadi Ahmed, a senior member of the pro-American Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, whose headquarters was also seized by gunmen.
Some of the police “are cooperating with the terrorists,” he said.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Jim Krane near Fallujah; and Tini Tran, Sameer N. Yacoub, Mariam Fam, Sabah Jerges, Katarina Kratovac and Maggie Michael in Baghdad.