U.S. airstrikes target havens of fighters in 2 Iraqi hotspots

Military forces re-enter volatile city of Samarra with backing of locals

September 10, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. forces went on the military and diplomatic offensive yesterday, hammering the insurgent strongholds of Fallujah and Tal Afar with warplanes while American Humvees cautiously reentered the rebellious city of Samarra for the first time in months with the backing of local officials.

A military spokesman said at least 67 insurgents were killed in the attacks on Tal Afar, a town near the Syrian border that the United States claims is a haven for weapons smugglers and foreign fighters.

It was the third-straight day of strikes against Fallujah, a city that remains fully under the control of insurgents. Residents said yesterday's airstrikes killed 17.

The stepped-up U.S. operations come as the Iraqi government is accelerating its preparations for national elections, which are scheduled to take place before the end of January.

There is widespread worry among members of Iraq's interim government that the elections will be seen as illegitimate if continued insurgent control of cities such as Fallujah makes voting there impossible.

Fouad Massoum, chairman of Iraq's interim legislature, said this week that an election excluding insurgent-controlled provinces was "not logical." It would be better, he said, to delay elections than to hold incomplete ones.

U.S. officials plainly are keen to see the elections held on time.

A senior U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said yesterday that "countries with a fairly high level of violence certainly have had elections before."

And though military officials denied that the week's aggressive military operations were conducted with the election in mind, spokesman Rear Adm. Gregory J. Slavonic acknowledged that safe and secure elections remained a top long-term priority.

"We would hope that all the citizens of Iraq have the opportunity to vote, no matter what city they live in," Slavonic said. "We're trying our best to ensure that."

Slavonic cited the joint U.S. and Iraqi National Guard non-violent foray into Samarra as an example of a nationwide effort to reassert central government control of areas now ruled by local insurgents.

Samarra's city council members, who were ousted by insurgents, reassembled yesterday and named an interim mayor and police chief.

"This has been an ongoing effort, not only in Samarra but everywhere, to encourage local governments to be more assertive, to take responsibility for the safety of their residents," Slavonic said.

U.S. and Iraqi troops intend to maintain a high-profile presence in Samarra.

Fallujah, however, remained indisputably under insurgent control despite punishing airstrikes.

Yesterday's attack targeted an alleged safe house of the Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who has claimed responsibility for many attacks in Iraq.

Residents said three homes near an industrial area were destroyed, but they denied that Zarqawi or any other foreign fighters were operating out of Fallujah.

"He is an American movie character," said Mustafa Hajem, a 27-year-old resident, warning that if U.S. troops enter Fallujah they will find "thousands of mujahadeen."

Insurgents took control of the city in April, after the killing and mutilation of four American contractors working there. That incident sparked some of the most deadly fighting of the war, and ended with the decision to leave the city in the hands of a group of former Iraqi army soldiers and Fallujah residents known as the Fallujah Brigade.

Now the brigade is all but defunct, its members either fleeing the city or joining the insurgents, residents said yesterday. A council comprised of radical Islamist clerics and insurgents exercises total control over the city, residents said.

"The people of Fallujah are the only ones who are defending their city, and they took a promise to become martyrs if the occupiers enter Fallujah," said Thamir al Dulamie, a 29-year-old resident.

Contacts are under way between Fallujah representatives and the interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to restore some degree of control over the city. The Fallujah residents want the U.S. attacks to stop and the Americans to pay compensation for damages.

Allawi wants city officials to hand over al-Qaida-linked militants that he and the Americans say are in Fallujah.

The airstrikes in Tal Afar, northwest of Fallujah, were part of a continuing operation to drive out "a large terrorist element that has displaced local Iraqi security forces throughout the recent weeks," according to a U.S. military statement.

The offensive was prompted by dozens of mortar, rocket and roadside bomb attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces traveling the highway near Tal Afar in the past month.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Killed in Iraq

As of yesterday, 1,005 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations. Since May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 867 U.S. soldiers have died.

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