BAGHDAD Ñ Iraq and the United States, launching a long-expected air
and ground offensive, have completed the first phase of the operation to
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
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
weapons and ammunition.
"What we have generally seen is that there is an outer-crust of the
defense Ñ 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."