- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 2004

BAGHDAD — American forces resumed fighting in parts of Fallujah and its surroundings yesterday that left three Marines dead even as some displaced residents of the war-ravaged city were allowed to return to their homes.

“Sporadic fighting has occurred as we continue to encounter insurgents and terrorists in pockets throughout the city,” said 1st Lt. Lyle L. Gilbert of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

In the center of Fallujah, F-18s dropped several bombs, sending up plumes of smoke in the worst fighting in weeks, the Associated Press reported. Tank and machine-gun fire could be heard to the south, while howitzers at Camp Fallujah southeast of the city boomed throughout the day. The guns fired illumination rounds after dark to help Marines on the ground spot attackers.

Officials declined to specify where in Anbar province the Marines were killed, but said fighting broke out late yesterday morning in a building in northern Fallujah, where insurgents apparently were attempting to stage an attack. Marine aircraft destroyed the building, Lt. Gilbert said.

U.S. and Iraqi officials had prepared for the return of up to 2,000 residents of the city’s central Andalus district, and announced that 900 took them up on the offer.

At a checkpoint northwest of the city, Iraqi national guardsmen hung small, colorful posters on concrete barriers that showed a girl crying and the words in Arabic, “Zarqawi killed her parents,” a reference to Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi, who was thought to have been in Fallujah before the U.S. attack. Another poster showed a father lifting his daughter to put a ballot in a voting box, meant to encourage people to vote Jan. 30.

U.S. officials, jumpy about security in the wake of a deadly suicide bombing inside one of the military bases near Mosul on Tuesday, are using high-tech biometric devices to catalog fighting-age Fallujah men returning to the city.

“Only suspicious military-aged men are being fingerprinted, iris-scanned and photographed,” Lt. Gilbert said in an e-mail. “Iraqi security forces and Marines at the entry point are working together to ensure only those necessary are screened for potential criminal activity.”

The deaths of the three Marines, and the killing of a U.S. soldier by a roadside bomb in Baghdad yesterday raised the number of U.S. troops who have died since the start of the war in March 2003 to at least 1,325, according to an unofficial count by AP.

After a months-long bombing campaign, U.S. forces stormed Fallujah last month, destroying much of the city in an attempt to dislodge groups of insurgents and Islamic terrorists who had taken control of the city and conducted regular attacks on American troops.

Iraqi officials estimate that 210,600 of the city’s residents had fled by the time the invasion began. Many Fallujans now live in tent encampments in other parts of Anbar province as well as Baghdad, the capital.

The once-bustling city of 300,000 now lies in ruins, its water and electricity networks badly damaged.

Fallujah still has no clean water, an official of the International Committee of the Red Cross said after a visit earlier this week. Lt. Gilbert said the military has opened two humanitarian aid stations that will provide food, water, medical assistance and reconstruction information.

The Muslim Scholars Association, an Islamist group that has called for a boycott of upcoming parliamentary elections, said the city was “uninhabitable” because of the U.S. bombing. “The rotten smell of the dead is widespread,” Sheik Hareth Suliman al-Dari, a leader of the group, told an Islamic news Web site.

Indeed, a group of 925 displaced Fallujans camped out in Baghdad said they would not return home anytime soon.

“What are we going to do except stay here until the Americans and the Iraqi national guard have left the city,” said Bilal Sami Sabri, a 29-year-old carpenter, as he helped distribute bags of dates donated by humanitarian groups. “Once they’re gone, we’ll go back and rebuild Fallujah with our hands.”

Each returning Fallujah family will get $100 from the government.

The interim Iraqi government, which in recent days has released a flood of feel-good press releases touting its accomplishments just as the country begins a six-week parliamentary campaign season, also has announced a multimillion-dollar reconstruction program, including up to $10,000 per family for rebuilding damaged homes.

Anti-U.S. sentiment remains strong among Fallujans. Mr. Sabri politely shied away from answering a question about whether any of the mujahideen, or resistance fighters, were among the Baghdad camp residents.

“Who are the mujahideen but people defending their own city?” he said. “Any honorable person would defend his country and his land. The mujahideen are everywhere.”

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