U.S. Marines push ahead with air, ground assaults against Fallujah

Friday, October 15th 2004, 6:32 am
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ U.S. warplanes pounded the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah on Friday, a day after the city's leaders suspended peace talks and rejected the Iraqi government's demands to turn over terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Al-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group has claimed responsibility for Thursday's twin bombings inside Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone _ home to U.S. officials and the Iraqi leadership _ which killed six people, including three American civilians. A fourth American was missing and presumed dead.

Two Iraqis were killed, at least one of them a suicide bomber. The identity of the other wasn't known. The group's claim, which could not be verified, was posted on a Web site known for its Islamic contents.

Thursday's bold, unprecedented attack, which witnesses and a senior Iraqi official said was carried out by suicide bombers, dramatized the militants' ability to penetrate the heart of the U.S.-Iraqi leadership even as authorities step up military operations to suppress Sunni Muslim insurgents in other parts of the country.

Jets and artillery hammered Fallujah through the night in an apparent effort to quash terrorists suspected of planning attacks timed with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins Friday.

The U.S. believes al-Zarqawi and his terrorist group are headquartered in Fallujah. Last year, the Ramadan period saw a surge in violence.

Maj. Francis Piccoli, spokesman for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, told The Associated Press that two Marine battalions were fighting to ``disrupt the capabilities of the anti-Iraqi forces.'' He would not say if the attacks, which began Thursday afternoon, were the start of a major offensive to wrest control of Fallujah from the insurgents for good.

``The operations were designed to target the large terrorist element operating in the area of Fallujah. This element has been planning to use the holy month of Ramadan for attacks,'' the U.S. command said in a statement.

Three people were killed and seven others wounded during the night, according to Dr. Rafi'a Hiyad of Fallujah General Hospital. On Thursday, the hospital said at least five people were killed and 16 wounded.

Late Thursday, Fallujah residents reported the most intensive shelling since U.S. forces began attacks aimed at al-Zarqawi's network. One resident said U.S. forces were using loudspeakers in the west of the city to urge Fallujah fighters to lay down their arms ``because we are going to push into Fallujah.''

Later Friday, U.S. planes continued to fly overhead but the town remained quiet, residents said.

Iraqi leaders have been in negotiations to restore government control to Fallujah, which fell under the domination of clerics and their armed mujahedeen followers after the end of the three-week Marine siege last April.

Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi warned Wednesday that Fallujah must surrender al-Zarqawi and other foreign fighters or face military action. Talks then broke down Thursday when city representatives rejected the ``impossible condition'' since even the Americans were unable to catch al-Zarqawi, said Abu Asaad, spokesman for the mujahedeen council of Fallujah.

Following Thursday's attack in Baghdad, the U.S. military said intelligence reports indicated insurgents were planning more strikes to ``gain media attention.''

Security measures in the capital and surrounding areas are being ``significantly increased for an undetermined period,'' a military statement said. They include more armed patrols, intensified security at Baghdad airport and elsewhere, and air patrols.

The Americans killed in the Green Zone bombing were employees of DynCorp security company. Two other DynCorp employees and three State Department employees were wounded.

The attack was the first time bombers had gotten inside the 4-square-mile compound _ surrounded by concrete walls, razor wire, sandbag bunkers and guard posts _ and was the deadliest attack within the area since the U.S. occupation began in May 2003.

The U.S.-guarded enclave _ home to about 10,000 Iraqis, government officials, foreign diplomats and military personnel _ spreads along the banks of the Tigris River in the heart of the capital.

The zone is centered on Saddam Hussein's mammoth Republican Palace, and there are dozens of smaller palatial buildings, houses, office buildings and a hospital once used by high-ranking members of the old Baath Party regime.

Iraqi National Security Adviser Qassem Dawoud said the Green Zone attacks appeared to be a ``suicide operation'' and warned ``This cowardly act will not go unpunished.''

The Green Zone is a regular target of insurgents. Mortar rounds are frequently fired at the compound, and there have also been a number of deadly car bombings at its gates. Last week a bomb was found in front of the Green Zone Cafe but did not explode.

Also Friday, a car bomb exploded near a police station in southwest Baghdad, killing one person and wounding at least 11, Interior Ministry and hospital officials said.

Initial reports indicated that five policemen were among the wounded from the explosion in the al-Doura neighborhood, Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman said.

The wounded, some of whom were seriously hurt, were taken to al-Yarmuk hospital, he said. No further details were immediately available.

On Thursday, four U.S. soldiers were killed in Baghdad and Ramadi, the U.S. command said. Two died in Baghdad, when one on patrol came under small arms fire and the other in a roadside bombing. Two more soldiers died when their Humvee was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and caught fire during a raid in Ramadi, 70 miles west of the capital, the military said.