U.S., Iraq capture northern parts of Faluja

Tuesday, November 9, 2004

BAGHDAD Iraq and the United States, launching a long-expected air and ground offensive, have completed the first phase of the operation to capture Faluja.

U.S. officials said Marine Corps units, backed by air gunships, helicopters, artillery and tanks, punched into Faluja and killed up to 50 Sunni insurgents in heavy fighting on Monday and Tuesday. In an operation dubbed "Dawn," the U.S. troops were accompanied by nearly 2,000 Iraqi commandos and security forces who helped capture and secure key facilities in the northern part of the city.

Officials said some of the Iraqi troops refused orders to enter Faluja, Middle East Newsline reported.

Officials said Saddam Hussein loyalists as well as operatives led by Abu Mussib Al Zarqawi were fighting coalition forces from mosques, hospitals and schools. They said an estimated 6,000 insurgents had mined and placed car bombs throughout Faluja.

"Iraqi forces entered Falujah hospital, capturing four foreigners and killing 38 persons," Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Alawi said on Monday. "We do not know whether they are Iraqis or not. They were stationed in the hospital in order to carry out terrorist actions."

Alawi announced that Iraq has closed its borders with Iran and Syria as well as Baghdad international airport. He also declared a state of emergency throughout Iraq with the exception of the Kurdish-controlled north.

Officials said the U.S.-led force captured a hospital and two bridges over the Euphrates River that led to Faluja, with a population of up to 300,000. They said the coalition, in an effort to expand its foothold in northern Faluja, was battling for control of the city's downtown area on Tuesday.

Gen. George Casey, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said between 10-15,000 U.S. troops have been deployed for the invasion. Casey said that between 50 and 70 percent of Faluja residents have already fled the city.

"We expect that we will have a fight in there over the next few days," Casey said in a teleconference from Baghdad to the Pentagon. "I do believe some have relocated already to other places, but others have come in."

The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and the 1st Marine Division relied on air and artillery strikes to facilitate the ground assault. The marine force, accompanied by the U.S. Army's armored unit from the 1st Infantry Division, was supported by F-16 fighter-jets, which dropped 500-pound bombs on insurgency strongholds, as well as AC-130 gunships.

The insurgents were said to have employed surface-to-surface and anti-aircraft rockets and missiles as well as mortars and automatic fire.

Officials said the insurgents were also expected to use suicide bombers to help stop the coalition advance.

"They have a range of weapons from AK-47s and machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, some heavier anti-aircraft-type machine guns," Casey said. "But the weapons of choice for them are going to be the improvised explosive devices and the car bombs. And all our intelligence is telling us that they lined some of the streets with the improvised explosive devices and they have also placed car bombs around the city."

The Iraqi force in Faluja was identified as the 36th Commando Battalion.

Officials said the elite Iraqi unit, which detained 38 suspected insurgents, played a major role in battles in and around Faluja.

The U.S. Army has assessed that between 3,000 and 6,000 insurgents were holed up in the Sunni-populated city. About 20 percent of the insurgents were said to be Al Zarqawi loyalists, including nationals from Algeria, Chechnya, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

A Saudi national identified only as Abu Walid was said to have been a leading aide to Al Zarqawi. Officials said they believe Abu Walid was killed in the first stage of the battle for Faluja.

Officials said the insurgents were holding Faluja residents hostages and sought to use them as human shields. They said the insurgents were also building a network of tunnels to link mosques and schools in an effort to transport weapons and ammunition.

"What we have generally seen is that there is an outer-crust of the defense and our estimates tell us that they will probably fall back and go toward the center of the city where there be probably a major confrontation," Casey said.

For his part, Al Zarqawi appealed to Muslims to help repel the coalition assault on Faluja. At the same time, Al Zarqawi accused Muslim clerics of failing to work for anti-coalition forces.

"God has entrusted you to defend Muslims and preserve its law," Al Zarqawi said in an Internet statement. "You decided to rest instead of standing in the name of God, leaving the holy warriors to face the most powerful force on earth."

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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