American warplanes pound Fallujah; residents say attacks are strongest in months

Saturday, November 6th 2004, 11:54 am
By: News On 6

NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) _ Insurgents set off at least two car bombs and attacked a police station Saturday in the central Iraqi town of Samarra, killing at least 29 people and wounding 40 in what could be an effort to take pressure off Fallujah, where U.S. forces are gearing up for an assault.

Elsewhere, 20 American soldiers were wounded in the Sunni Triangle city of Ramadi, the U.S. command said without elaborating. Residents of that insurgent stronghold, located 70 miles west of Baghdad, reported clashes and explosions throughout the day.

U.S. warplanes pounded Fallujah, the insurgents' strongest bastion, with their strongest bombardment in months Friday night and Saturday, residents said.

But as U.S. forces tried to soften up guerrillas in Fallujah, heavy fighting erupted in Samarra, a city 60 miles to the northeast that U.S. and Iraqi forces reclaimed from insurgents in September and had sought to use as a model for pacifying restive Sunni Muslim areas of the country.

Insurgents on Saturday killed 17 policemen and 12 Iraq civilians during multiple attacks throughout the town, the military said in a statement. Another 23 people and 17 policemen were injured, the military said.

Most of the policemen were killed when armed militants stormed a police station, while others died when a mortar round struck near a police station.

In other attacks, a suicide car bomber detonated explosives inside a stolen police car near the mayor's office, police said. A second car bomb exploded in a residential area of the town near a U.S. base and a mortar fell on a crowded market, police said.

Samarra Hospital officials said a commander of the Iraqi National Guard, Abdel Razeq Shaker al-Garmali, was also killed in the attacks.

U.S. forces announced through loudspeakers an indefinite curfew in the town. American warplanes and helicopters were heard roaming overhead. Throughout Samarra, U.S. forces clashed with small bands of insurgents.

After announcing the curfew, the U.S. military said in a statement that Iraqi security forces and coalition forces have ``full control of the situation.''

In western Baghdad, a suicide car bomber detonated an explosion that killed an Iraqi civilian and wounded three coalition troops and an Iraqi, the U.S. military said. The bomber was killed and another occupant in the car was wounded. Witnesses said the blast hit about 300 yards from a security checkpoint on the road to the international airport.

The new violence could be aimed at relieving U.S. pressure on Fallujah as American commanders shift their forces for an anticipated showdown there.

More than 10,000 American soldiers and Marines are massed for an expected offensive against Fallujah, and Iraq's interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi warned the ``window is closing'' to avert an attack.

As the Americans prepare for an offensive, U.S. planes dropped five 500-pound bombs at several targets in Fallujah early Saturday, including a factory as well as suspected weapons caches. The drone of U.S. aircraft heading toward Fallujah could be heard over Baghdad. The U.S. military said the main highway into Fallujah has now been completely sealed off.

U.S. intelligence estimates there are about 3,000 insurgents dug in behind defenses and booby traps in Fallujah, a city of about 300,000 located 40 miles west of Baghdad.

Military planners believe there are about 1,200 hardcore insurgents in Fallujah _ at least half of them Iraqis. They are bolstered by insurgent cells with up to 2,000 fighters in the surrounding towns and countryside.

In Brussels, Belgium, Allawi warned that the ``window really is closing for a peaceful settlement'' in Fallujah. Allawi must give the final go-ahead for the offensive, part of a campaign to curb the insurgency ahead of national elections planned for January.

Sunni clerics have threatened to boycott the election if Fallujah is attacked, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned U.S., British and Iraqi authorities that a military campaign and ``increased insurgent violence'' could put elections at risk.

Iraqi authorities closed a border crossing point with Syria, and U.S. troops set up checkpoints along major routes into the city. Marines fired on a civilian vehicle that did not stop, killing an Iraqi woman and wounding her husband, according to the U.S. military and witnesses. The car didn't notice the checkpoint, witnesses said.

The insurgents struck back, killing one U.S. soldier and wounding five in a rocket attack. Clashes were reported at other checkpoints around the city and in the east and north of the city late in the day. An AC-130 gunship fired at several targets as U.S. forces skirmished with insurgents, the U.S. army said.

Elsewhere, U.S. Cobra attack helicopters fired Friday on insurgents operating an illegal checkpoint south of Baghdad, killing or wounding an ``unknown number'' of people, the military said.

Allawi, a secular Shiite Muslim with strong ties to the CIA and State Department, has demanded that Fallujah hand over foreign extremists, including Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his followers, and allow government troops to enter the city.

Allawi faces strong opposition to a Fallujah offensive from the Sunni minority. The Sunni clerical Association of Muslim Scholars has threatened to boycott the January election and mount a nationwide civil disobedience campaign.

A public outcry over civilian casualties prompted the Bush administration to call off a siege in April, after which Fallujah fell under control of radical clerics.

Also Saturday, gunmen killed a former official of Saddam Hussein's intelligence service in the city of Baquouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, police said. Former Lt. Col. Abdul Sattar al-Luheibi was in his car when gunmen in four vehicles surrounded him the city center, police said.

The gunmen ordered al-Luheiby and his 13-year-old son out of the car and killed the former intelligence official, said the officer on condition of anonymity. The son was unhurt.