U.S. troops and combat aircraft unleashed artillery and precision strikes yesterday on terrorist hide-outs in Fallujah, shaping the battle space for what is designed as a final ground assault to cleanse the renegade city of foreign and Iraqi insurgents.
A combined force of Marines, Army soldiers and Iraqi national guardsmen ringed the city west of Baghdad, blocking exit routes. For weeks, the coalition has allowed residents to leave in an effort to further isolate an estimated 5,000 militants inside the city. Aircraft dropped leaflets urging residents to leave for designated refugee areas.
“The window is closing for a peaceful settlement,” Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said at a press conference in Brussels, where he met with European Union leaders. “We intend to liberate the people…. The insurgents and the terrorists are still operating there. We hope they will come to their senses otherwise we will have to bring them to face justice.”
Mr. Allawi’s comments came after EU leaders responded to his call to build a strategic partnership with Iraq by offering $40 million to fund the fledgling democracy’s first elections since Saddam Hussein was ousted.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also weighed in on Iraqi elections yesterday, warning Mr. Allawi, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair that an offensive on Fallujah will alienate Iraqis. Sunni clerics already have threatened to boycott the election if Fallujah is attacked.
“The threat or actual use of force not only risks deepening the sense of alienation of certain communities, but would also reinforce perceptions among the Iraqi population of a continued military occupation,” Mr. Annan wrote in the letter to the leaders.
The Bush administration and Mr. Blair said Mr. Allawi will make the call on Fallujah. The administration believes Fallujah must be cleaned out ahead of planned elections in late January.
The United States has lost more than 1,000 service members in combat deaths in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion. In Anbar province, which includes the restive cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, Marines are killed weekly by rocket fire and roadside bombs.
Military sources said a major assault could come within days, as Marines completed training for hitting specific targets inside a sprawling city of 300,000. They were also training Iraqis in the correct battlefield techniques.
“I know you want to wear masks so nobody will recognize you but the terrorists wear masks, too, and Marines shoot people with masks,” Reuters quoted Marine Staff Sgt. Anthony Villa as telling the Iraqis.
Inside the city, cleric Hadra al Mohammadiya spoke in a mosque to several hundred anti-coalition fighters.
“We are forced to go into this battle but we were hoping for peaceful solution,” the imam said. “The Iraqi government and the American forces want this war to take place.”
Retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis yesterday said Mr. Bush’s decisive re-election Tuesday gives him the mandate to take the decisive action that is required.
“We’ll take casualties. But we’ll clean it up. That’s the intent. Clean out the environment so we can have elections,” he said.
Intelligence reports from inside the town and overhead surveillance have pinpointed where the insurgents live and organize. In recent months, commanders have called in air strikes and artillery barrages. Military sources said yesterday the strikes have killed at least 10 top lieutenants of Abu Musab Zarqawi. The Jordanian-born terrorist has used Fallujah as a base from which to direct an unending series of car-bombings against American and Iraqi troops.
Seven months ago, Marines seemed on the verge of subduing Fallujah. They conducted house-by-house, search-and-destroy missions that killed hundreds of militant. But Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the top U.S. commander, halted operations after Iraqi interim government officials objected. The fear was that continuing the killing would prevent the naming of a transition government.
The halt proved costly. Zarqawi and other terrorists used the pause to build up men, arms and money — most of it pouring across the Syrian border.
Now, American and Iraqi troops faced a force probably five times as large as the one they would have battled in April, according to a military source.
It is not clear whether Zarqawi, who has personally beheaded captives, is inside Fallujah. Military sources told The Washington Times this past summer that he left the city and constantly moves from location to location. He takes a hands-on approach, personally greeting newly arrived jihadists from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other countries. He then gives the assassins car-bombing missions, usually against Iraqis who are aiding the Americans.
An attack on Fallujah would be the fourth major assault in Iraq since spring and summer to wrest control of insurgent-held territory. Previously, U.S. Army troops and Iraqi guardsmen pacified Najaf in southern Iraq, Sadr City neighborhood in Baghdad and Samara north of the city.
Col. Maginnis said Fallujah will be the toughest yet.
“The number in Samara was probably a couple of hundred and they were not as hardened as some of these outsiders are in Fallujah,” Col. Maginnis said. “They’re spread out more in Fallujah than we’d like. It’s going to be a little more difficult to track them down.”
French President Jacques Chirac — who opposed the Iraq war — did not attend yesterday’s EU meeting with Mr. Allawi, but said he was not snubbing Iraq’s prime minister. At the time of the meeting, Mr. Chirac was flying to the United Arab Emirates to meet with its new leader.