U.S. airstrikes target Iraqi insurgents

At least 15 civilians killed in Fallujah bombing series

ambush, troop deaths noted

September 26, 2004|By Colin McMahon | Colin McMahon,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Acting on a tip and aiming to take out a militant group's base of operations, American forces hammered Fallujah yesterday morning with a series of strikes that obliterated the U.S. targets but also killed and wounded several Iraqi civilians, authorities said.

The results of the strikes show the difficulties posed by combating guerrilla groups that have seized control of Fallujah.

The guerrillas store weaponry and supplies in the Sunni city, U.S. and Iraqi officials say; they retreat there to heal their wounds and allegedly gather there to plot attacks. And when they invite American retribution, U.S. officials say, they do so from residential areas.

U.S. officials described yesterday's airstrikes as precise, effective and undertaken with every effort to avoid civilian casualties. By afternoon, hospital officials reported 15 people dead and 30 wounded, including children.

Violence continued in other areas yesterday as well.

An ambush of Iraqis hoping to join the National Guard killed six men in west Baghdad. National Guard troops clashed with insurgents south of Baghdad, wounding four, the Associated Press reported. And the heavily defended Oil Ministry was damaged by mortar fire and a rocket blast, though there were no casualties.

The U.S. military reported the deaths of five more troops. A homemade bomb killed a soldier yesterday in Baghdad, and four Marines died in three incidents Friday in the so-called Sunni Triangle, which includes Fallujah and Ramadi.

The Pentagon reported the American military death toll in Iraq at 1,046 as of Friday.

The Fallujah attacks spanned several hours, were prompted by different events and were carried out by various means.

On Friday, Marines had shelled insurgent fighters who had been spotted with heavy weaponry, a Marine spokesman said. Then about 3:30 a.m. yesterday, insurgents firing small arms and rocket-propelled grenades at U.S. forces sought to escape into a house, the military said. An airstrike was called in.

A half-hour later, according to a military statement, U.S. warplanes bombed a "known terrorist meeting site" linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The statement said intelligence sources reported that the site was being used by the Jordanian's group to plan attacks.

During the bombings, the Fallujah mosque switched on its loudspeakers and clerics chanted prayers.

Al-Zarqawi's group has claimed responsibility for numerous guerrilla attacks on U.S. and Iraqi military targets and attacks on Iraqi and Western civilian targets. It was al-Zarqawi himself, according to the CIA, who decapitated American engineer Eugene Armstrong in an execution shown last week on the Internet.

Fellow American captive Jack Hensley also was killed, and his slaying was posted on the Web. British citizen Kenneth Bigley, a third contractor who was kidnapped with Armstrong and Hensley from a Baghdad house on Sept. 16, remains in the hands of al-Zarqawi's group, known in English translation as One God and Holy War.

A statement posted online yesterday said that Bigley had been killed, but British officials in London said that it lacked credibility. A pair of delegates from the Muslim Council of Britain arrived yesterday from London to meet with religious leaders and try to pressure al-Zarqawi to release Bigley.

"Be merciful," the council's leader, Iqbal Sacranie, implored in a statement. "Our religion Islam does not allow us to harm the innocent."

More than 140 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq - some by anti-U.S. insurgents and some by criminals seeking ransoms. At least 26 of them have been killed. Many Iraqis have also been seized.

Insurgents released the dean of Iraq's Anbar University yesterday, more than a month after he was taken hostage, witnesses said. Abdulhadi Rajab al-Heeti was released in Ramadi.

Also, Iraqi police in Basra that they had arrested three kidnapping suspects and freed an Iraqi hostage who had been selling mobile phones. Police said the suspects were part of a kidnapping gang but did not provide other details.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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