Marines prepare to strike Fallujah

U.S. officials say assault is likely, expressing little hope on talks with rebels

October 30, 2004|By Patrick J. McDonnell | Patrick J. McDonnell,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq - Marines just outside the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah were making final preparations yesterday for a large-scale offensive that U.S. commanders and diplomats on the ground in Baghdad describe as all but inevitable.

"We are gearing up to do an operation," Brig. Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik, deputy commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, told reporters at a base near Fallujah where troops were massing. "If we're told to go, we're going to go. And when we go ... it's going to be decisive, and we're going to go in there, and we're going to whack 'em."

Officials of the Iraqi interim government have held out hope that their long-deadlocked negotiations with representatives from Fallujah would yield results and head off the prospective assault. But commanders of the Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based Marines who would mount the operation expressed little confidence in the talks.

The negotiations "are a ruse ... to stall for time," Marine Col. Michael Shupp told reporters gathered here in anticipation of the offensive.

Fallujah representatives have said they would lay down their arms only if U.S. troops agreed to stay out of the troubled city west of Baghdad - a demand that the U.S.-backed Iraqi interim government has rejected.

Hejlik said Marines were awaiting word from interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi on when to launch the attack. Although the scope and timing of any invasion of Fallujah remain secret, it was widely believed that no attack would come before the U.S. presidential election on Tuesday.

U.S. officials view the impending invasion as key to reasserting control of Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland in preparation for national elections scheduled for January. They cite recent military successes in reversing rebel gains in other Iraqi cities and say Fallujah cannot stand as an inspirational sanctuary for Sunni insurgents who fan out across the country and launch deadly attacks.

"If you decide to fight for Fallujah, you have to fight for it early enough so that you can get past the battle and have registration, reconstruction [and] elections," said a senior U.S. diplomat in Baghdad.

U.S. officials in Baghdad also said that a U.S.-led assault on the well-entrenched guerrillas of Fallujah is imminent.

"I think we're going to have to clear those guys out," a senior U.S. commander in Baghdad said this week. The commander called Fallujah "the Dodge City of Iraq."

As much as 80 percent of Fallujah's population of more than 250,000 has fled the city, said Maj. James West, an intelligence officer with the Marines here. Recent visitors have described Fallujah as a ghost town, with little traffic and few shops open.

According to U.S. estimates, 3,000 to 4,000 armed insurgents are present in and around Fallujah. Although U.S. forces have frequently focused their efforts on the foreign legions of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, officials say it is likely that most of the insurgents in Fallujah are Iraqis. Militants have been digging in for months in anticipation of a U.S. incursion, commanders say.

In an indication that the assault may come within days, the first wave of British troops from the Black Watch regiment has arrived at a base near Baghdad, the Defense Ministry in London said. In addition, Marines here held a gas-attack drill yesterday and have switched from three hot meals a day to two.

U.S. officials requested help from the British in an effort to free up more American forces for the assault on Fallujah.

Meanwhile, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman in Tokyo said today that a body found in Iraq resembles a Japanese civilian taken hostage by Islamic militants and threatened with death, but that the Japanese government has not yet positively identified it.

Hatsuhisa Takashima said the body found near the Iraqi city of Tikrit was being flown to Doha, Qatar, for examination to determine whether it was hostage Shosei Koda, 24. The body was found by the U.S. military.

"We've been told by the U.S. military that several parts of the body, such as the height, weight and part of the head, resemble Koda," Takashima said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Killed in Iraq

As of yesterday, 1,111 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, 973 U.S. soldiers have died.

Latest identification

Army Staff Sgt. Jerome Lemon, 42, North Charleston, S.C.; killed Wednesday when his convoy was ambushed; assigned to the 1052nd Transportation Company, Army National Guard, Kingstree, S.C.

Associated Press

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