U.S. intensifies assault on Fallujah

Military launches strikes to force foreign fighters from insurgent stronghold

October 16, 2004|By Colin McMahon | Colin McMahon,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. warplanes struck insurgent-held Fallujah hard yesterday, the latest assault in a bombing campaign that has intensified with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Vowing to disrupt guerrilla bands planning car bombings and other attacks, and mindful that Ramadan last year brought a surge in such incidents, the U.S. military is targeting Fallujah sites that it says are being used by militants linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Al-Zarqawi's group claimed responsibility for the twin bombings Thursday in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, and security was tightened there and at other strategic sites housing Western soldiers and civilians. The U.S. State Department officially declared al-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group a terrorist organization.

Iraqi and U.S. officials say the group has taken refuge in Fallujah, and authorities are demanding that Fallujah hand over any foreign fighters or face a withering Marine assault. Al-Zarqawi's group has claimed numerous kidnappings, beheadings, ambushes and car bombings of Westerners and Iraqis.

A car bombing yesterday morning in southern Baghdad targeted an Iraqi police patrol but killed 10 civilians, the U.S. military said. Among the dead were a family of four driving by at the time and laborers working in a nearby palm grove. Four police officers were among the 14 people wounded.

The stepped-up bombing of Fallujah does not mean a land assault on the city is imminent, U.S. officials said. But the government of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has vowed to retake Fallujah and other insurgent bastions in time to hold national elections in January.

Residents said the latest round of air attacks and artillery shelling was more intense than any since the Marines withdrew from Fallujah in April under a deal that ultimately led to the insurgents' taking control. Yesterday's bombing runs were accompanied by land maneuvers, as Marines tightened checkpoints in hopes of containing or capturing guerrilla forces.

The strikes began Thursday night, lasted through dawn yesterday as Sunni residents were greeting the beginning of Ramadan, and then resumed at sundown yesterday. They followed peace talks between Iraqi officials and city leaders broke down over the demand that Fallujah leaders hand over al-Zarqawi and his militants.

U.S. Marines reportedly arrested Fallujah's top negotiator in the peace talks. The U.S. military in Baghdad declined to comment.

In a statement read yesterday in Sunni mosques in Baghdad and elsewhere, Fallujah clerics vowed to wage a civil disobedience campaign if the Marines storm the city. If that failed, the clerics said, they would proclaim a holy war against all U.S.-led forces "as well as those collaborating with them."

Fallujah leaders say al-Zarqawi is not in their city, comparing him to the weapons of mass destruction that the Bush administration had said were stockpiled by Saddam Hussein.

"The Fallujah delegation decided to suspend the negotiations ... and we are not going to take them up again unless the occupation forces pull out of all Iraqi cities and villages," said an insurgent leader who identified himself as Abu Ahmed. "We put the responsibility on Allawi and his government for the loss of Muslim blood in Fallujah."

Some residents said the U.S. move to seal off escape routes for insurgents had prevented them from leaving.

"I brought my family back from Baghdad to Fallujah," said Bashir Fisal, 28. "I should take them out again or Fallujah will be their cemetery. I don't know what to do."

Many residents have been leaving Fallujah, but insurgent fighters are said to be laying land mines and making other preparations for a U.S. assault.

Britain's Channel 4 News reported yesterday that the United States had lodged a formal request for more British troops to be sent to Iraq to free up U.S. forces for the Fallujah assault. Some of those troops could be deployed in Baghdad, the report said. Britain's Ministry of Defense said only that it was discussing troop deployments with the Allawi government and U.S. officials. It denied it had agreed to send British troops to the Baghdad area.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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