Allawi warns "window is closing" to avert Fallujah assault, three U.S. troops killed in fighting

Thursday, November 4th 2004, 8:23 pm
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ U.S. jets struck Fallujah with five air raids in 12 hours, softening up the insurgent stronghold for an expected major assault. Guerrillas responded with a rocket attack Friday, killing a U.S. soldier and wounding seven others, the U.S. military said.

Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, warned that the ``window is closing'' for a peaceful settlement to avert an offensive on Fallujah, west of Baghdad. U.S. troops sealed off roads into the city overnight.

U.S. commanders said a combined U.S.-Iraqi force would carry out the attack on what is considered the insurgents' strongest bastion. Prime Minister Ayad Allawi must give the green light for the operation _ part of a campaign to uproot insurgents ahead of vital elections planned for late January.

The deadly rocket attack came a day after two American Marines were killed and four others were wounded Thursday in fighting west of Baghdad.

The rocket attack occurred about 1:20 p.m. Friday against a U.S. position outside Fallujah. Also on the outskirts of Fallujah, guerrillas attacked two new checkpoints set up by U.S. forces, prompting exchanges of fire that killed at least one attacker, the military said.

In another incident, mortar shells exploded on a small U.S. base at Saqlawiyah west of Fallujah, the military said. U.S. troops returned fire, killing an undetermined number of insurgents, the military said.

Elsewhere, three British soldiers were killed Thursday south of Baghdad and eight others were wounded when a suicide driver blew up his vehicle at a checkpoint. An Iraqi translator also died in the attack.

It was the single biggest loss of life for the British since August 2003 and came only days after British troops redeployed from the relative safety of the south to the base close to Baghdad in order to free up U.S. troops for a Fallujah offensive.

Ayad Allawi suggested Friday that the offensive could come soon. ``We intend to liberate the people and to bring the rule of law to Fallujah,'' Allawi told reporters in Brussels, where he was appealing to European nations to keep troops in Iraq and to accelerate training of Iraqi forces.

``The window really is closing for a peaceful settlement,'' he said.

``We have been asked by the people of Fallujah to help them liberate them from the terrorists and insurgents,'' he said. Allawi said most to the city's civilian population had left.

However, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned that the election could be undermined by a new campaign against Fallujah because of a possible backlash from the Sunni Muslim community.

In a letter dated Oct. 31, Annan told American, British and Iraqi leaders that the United Nations wants to help prepare for the elections but fears a rise in violence could disrupt the process.

``I have in mind not only the risk of increased insurgent violence, but also reports of major military offensives being planned by the multinational force in key localities such as Fallujah,'' Annan wrote in the letter, obtained by The Associated Press.

U.S. airstrikes early Friday hit a system of barriers rigged with bombs in the southeastern part of Fallujah, a command post, suspected fighting positions and a weapons cache, said Lt. Nathan Braden, of 1st Marine Division.

Explosions could be heard in the southern part of Fallujah Friday afternoon.

Also Friday, U.S. Marines fired on a civilian vehicle that did not stop at a checkpoint in Fallujah, killing an Iraqi woman and wounding her husband, according to the U.S. military and witnesses. The car didn't notice the checkpoint at the time, witnesses said.

``Marines fire upon vehicles only as a last resort when verbal and visual warnings to stop fail. Such was the case today,'' the Marines said in an e-mailed response.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi election commission said that Iraqis who live outside the country will be allowed to vote in the election, which is to be held by Jan. 31.

Commission spokesman Fareed Ayar said the government planned to establish voting centers in countries with large Iraqi populations. Details of how many centers, where they would be located and which countries would be involved have not been finalized, he said.

Iraqi authorities have put together a team of Iraqi administrators to run Fallujah after the offensive, Marine Maj. Jim West said Thursday. West said $75 million has been earmarked to repair the city.

The strategy is similar to one used when U.S. troops restored government authority in the Shiite holy city Najaf last August after weeks of fighting with militiamen.

The deteriorating security situation prompted the humanitarian organization Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, to announce it was closing its operations in Iraq. CARE International withdrew from the country after its national director, Margaret Hassan, was kidnapped last month.

An Iraqi known for cooperating with Americans was killed near Ramadi, police said. The assailants stopped a car carrying Sheik Bezei Ftaykhan, ordered the driver to leave and pumped about 30 bullets into the sheik's body, police said.

The wave of violence in Iraq has also been marked by the kidnapping of more than 170 foreigners, more than 30 of them killed, since Saddam Hussein's regime fell in April 2003.

On Friday, Nepal's Foreign Minister confirmed a Nepalese man abducted by gunmen Monday along with an American, a Filipino, and three Iraqis had been freed by his captors in Baghdad. Two Iraqi guards were released earlier in the week.

The American, whose identity has not been released, and Filipino accountant Robert Tarongoy, 31, are still missing. Both worked for the Saudi Arabian Trading and Construction Co., based in Riyadh.

A Lebanese American contractor was also seized in Baghdad earlier this week. His captors have also not identified themselves.

However, two Lebanese hostages held for more than a month were freed after a ransom was paid, one of the former hostages said Friday. Marwan Ibrahim Kassar and Mohammed Jawdat Hussein were released unharmed Wednesday and returned to Lebanon.

In other developments Friday:

_ Four buses carrying Shiite pilgrims to Karbala plunged into a river near Latifiyah in central Iraq, killing 18 people on board, when the drivers apparently failed to see that a bridge had been destroyed two days earlier by insurgents, said Dr. Dawoud al-Taie of nearby Mahmoudiya Hospital.

_ A private security company, Global Risk Strategies, said a British contractor was killed in a suicide car bombing at Baghdad airport Wednesday that also injured several Iraqi civilians.

_ In Muqdadiyah, north of Baghdad, a mortar shell targeting a police station fell short, killing two children in a nearby home, police said.