Marines poised for Fallujah offensive
Since April 5, the city has been a rallying point for anti-Americanism.
CAMP FALLUJAH, IRAQ
Just back from two weeks battling Iraqi insurgents on the front line of Fallujah, Gunnery Sgt. Mark Woodward was surprised Thursday to hear that a cease-fire had been in place since Monday.Skip to next paragraph
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"Oh, that's what that was called?" asked the dirt-encrusted marine from Mesa, Ariz., as he recalled fighting that flared again on Wednesday. To signal imminent attacks, cars and ambulances with loudspeakers drove through Fallujah Tuesday night, said Sergeant Woodward and others in his unit.
"Kill the Americans, God bless the mujahideen [holy warriors]," the speakers blared, according to the marines. "Islam requires you to fight the enemy."
The guerrillas in the flash-point city of Fallujah are proving difficult to subdue. Senior US officers here say their opponents amount to a "hard core" of a couple hundred foreign and more Iraqi fighters, "fairly significantly depleted" by recent fighting.
Marines have cordoned off the restive city since April 5. Terms of this week's cease-fire - made with civic leaders who concede they have no control over the insurgents - were to forestall a US offensive in exchange for a handover of heavy weapons.
But as of Thursday, the initiative had yielded only a truck full of "junk," said Lt. Gen. James Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. As hopes dimmed for cooperation, US forces, concerned that guerrillas are simply regrouping, appeared poised to go on the offensive.
The standoff will come to a head in "days, not weeks," said General Conway.
Across Iraq, violence this month has left more than 100US troops dead. According to the Iraqi health minister, 576 Iraqis have died, a sharply lower figure than the 600 dead in Fallujah alone cited by a hospital official there last week. The bulk of those casualties have come from this Sunni triangle town.
Perhaps more important, Fallujah has become an anti-American rallying cry for Sunni and Shiite Muslims alike. Results of this standoff resound far beyond Fallujah, and are helping unravel American plans for ending the year-long occupation.
Monday, Spain began to withdraw its 1,400 troops, and the Dominican Republic announced it would quickly follow suit, bringing its 300 troops home within two weeks. Honduras also said it would pull its 370 troops. Poland, a resolute coalition member, said Thursday that it was considering withdrawing its 2,400 troops.
In Fallujah, the US commander expressed confidence that his forces will prevail. "If it comes to it, we will demand that noncombatants leave the city" to minimize civilian casualties, General Conway told journalists at this base seven miles east of the city. "I'm confident that if we have to fight, it won't last long."
The cease-fire was built on the premise that "old men should be able to agree, so young men don't have to die," says Conway. But the people of Fallujah "have not responded well." The attack Wednesday involved an estimated 60 to 80 insurgents.
Another concern here is that the cease-fire has given remaining guerrillas a chance to set up new ambushes, armed with a better understanding of US tactics.
Guerrillas are "in a reconstruction phase at this point," Conway says, though insurgents are still able deliver a large punch. "It will be costly [to enter the city], but the marines are ready to strap it on."