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U.S. Troops Go on Offensive in Fallujah

November 12, 2004 GMT

FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) _ American forces went on the offensive against concentrations of militants in southern Fallujah who tried to break out of a security cordon, as guerrillas launched attacks in one of Iraq’s major cities in what could be a bid to relieve pressure on their allies here.

By Friday, Army and Marine units had pushed deeper into the southern reaches of Fallujah, backed by FA-18s and AC-130 gunships, as they sought to corner insurgents being .

With insurgent fire cover from nearby buildings, some three to four dozen militants tried to break out of the security cordon to the south and east of the city late Thursday but were pushed back by U.S. troops, the military said.

U.S. forces are also positioned to the west near key bridges, blocking rebels from crossing the Euphrates River with patrol boats.

In Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city some 220 miles north of Baghdad, guerrillas assaulted nine police stations on Thursday, overwhelming several, and battled U.S. and Iraqi troops around bridges across the Tigris River in the city, where a curfew had been imposed a day earlier.

And in Baghdad, a car bomb exploded Thursday moments after a U.S. patrol passed on Saadoun Street, killing 17 bystanders and wounding 30.

The four-day Fallujah offensive has killed some 600 insurgents, 18 U.S. troops and five Iraqi soldiers, the U.S. military said. An additional 178 Americans and 34 Iraqi soldiers have been injured, the military said.

As night fell Thursday, U.S. Army soldiers and Marines attacked south of the main east-west highway that bisects Fallujah, a Sunni Muslim insurgent stronghold 40 miles west of Baghdad.

An Iraqi journalist in the city reported seeing burned U.S. vehicles and bodies in the street, with more buried under the wreckage. He said two men trying to move a corpse were shot down by a sniper.

Two of the three small clinics in the city have been bombed, and in one case, medical staff and patients were killed, he said. A U.S. tank was positioned beside the third clinic, and residents were afraid to go there, he said.

``People are afraid of even looking out the window because of snipers,″ he said, asking that he not be named for his own safety. ``The Americans are shooting anything that moves.″

Many, if not most, of Fallujah’s 200,000 to 300,000 residents fled the city before the assault. It is impossible to determine how many civilians who were not actively fighting the Americans or assisting the insurgents may have been killed.

Commanders said they believe 1,200 to 3,000 fighters were in Fallujah before the offensive.

Most of the insurgents still fighting in Fallujah are believed to have fallen back to southern districts ahead of the advancing U.S. and Iraqi forces, although fierce clashes were reported in the west of the city around the public market.

American officers said the majority of the insurgent mortar and machine-gun fire Thursday was directed at U.S. military units forming a cordon around the city to prevent guerrillas from slipping away.

Officers said that suggested the insurgents were trying to break out of Fallujah rather than defend it.

Meanwhile, two Marine Super Cobra attack helicopters were hit by ground fire and forced to land in separate incidents near Fallujah, the military said. The four pilots were rescued, though one suffered slight injuries.

At a U.S. camp outside Fallujah, Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, commander of the 1st Marine Division, said the operation was running ``ahead of schedule″ but he would not predict how many days of fighting lay ahead.

``Today our forces are conducting deliberate clearing operations within the city, going house to house, building to building looking for arms caches,″ Natonski said. He said militants have been using mosques as military strong-points.

``In almost ever single mosque in Fallujah, we have found an arms cache,″ he said. ``We have found IED-making (bomb-making) factories. We have found fortifications. We’ve been shot at by snipers from minarets.″

Natonski also said he had visited a ``slaughterhouse″ in the northern Jolan neighborhood where hostages were held and possibly killed by militants. He described a small room with no windows and just one door. He said he saw two thin mattresses, straw mats covered in blood and a wheelchair that apparently was used to transport captives.

Also, a Fox News reporter embedded with India Company of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment said the unit found five bodies in a locked house in northwest Fallujah on Wednesday. All the victims were shot in the back of the head. Their identities were not known, although there were indications they were civilians, the report said.

Late Thursday, Marines found the Syrian driver captured with two French journalists in August inside an undisclosed location in Fallujah. Capt. Ed Bitanga said the man told military officials he had been separated from the journalists about a month ago.

On Aug. 20, Christian Chesnot, 37, with Radio France Internationle, and Georges Malbrunot, 41, with Le Figaro, disappeared along with their Syrian driver Mohammed al-Joundi on a trip to the holy city of Najaf. A militant group calling itself ``the Islamic Army in Iraq″ claimed responsiblity, demanding that France revoke a new law banning Islamic head scarves from state schools.

U.S. officials believe the al-Qaida-linked terror movement of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who claimed responsibility for many of the kidnappings and beheadings of foreign hostages, used Fallujah as a base. They said they believe al-Zarqawi may have slipped away before the offensive.

Last April, Fallujah militants fought Marines to a standstill during a three-week siege, which the Bush administration called off amid public criticism over civilian casualties.

The current offensive was begun so the government can hold national elections in January, although Sunni clerics have called a boycott to protest the Fallujah operation.

This offensive has gone swiftly, in part because of a larger ground force and massive use of air and artillery.

However, a steady stream of wounded being flown to the U.S. military’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany suggests that fighting in some parts of Fallujah has been intense.

Hospital staff were expanding bed capacity as 102 wounded U.S. service members were flown in Thursday _ up from the usual 30 to 50 a day the U.S. military hospital receives, officials said. A day earlier, 69 wounded were brought in.

Military officials cautioned that the figure of 600 insurgents killed in Fallujah was only a rough estimate and that many died in air and artillery bombardments ahead of the ground advance.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, said Thursday that ``hundreds and hundreds of insurgents″ have been killed and captured. He called the Fallujah offensive ``very, very successful″ but said it would not spell the end of the insurgency.

``If anybody thinks that Fallujah is going to be the end of the insurgency in Iraq, that was never the objective, never our intention, and even never our hope,″ Myers told NBC.

The attacks in Mosul may have been intended to divert attention from Fallujah.

A U.S. military spokeswoman, Capt. Angela Bowman, said it could take ``some time until we fully secure the city.″

Smoke rose over Mosul on Thursday as U.S. warplanes streaked overhead. City officials warned residents to stay away from the five major bridges. Militants brandishing rocket-propelled grenades were in front of the Ibn Al-Atheer hospital.

Saadi Ahmed, a senior member of the pro-American Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, said nine police stations were attacked and that ``Iraqi police turned some stations over to the terrorists.″

``The internal security forces...are a failure and are ineffective because some of them are cooperating with the terrorists,″ Ahmed said.


Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Jim Krane near Fallujah; and Tini Tran, Sameer N. Yacoub, Mariam Fam, Sabah Jerges, Katarina Kratovac and Maggie Michael in Baghdad.