Marines poised for Fallujah offensive

Since April 5, the city has been a rallying point for anti-Americanism.

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.

"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."

The marines have been criticized for heavy-handed tactics that have increased support among Iraqis for the guerrillas - including the use of snipers who are widely reported to have killed unarmed Iraqis.

US forces repeatedly accuse insurgents of using ambulances to ferry gunmen and weapons in Fallujah, and of using mosques as weapons stores and shooting platforms.

Marines say that last week, they found armor-piercing bullets and sighting equipment for rockets and rifles hidden in sacks of food supplies bound for Fallujah. The driver, a statement said, wore a "poorly made fake Red Crescent uniform."

Iraqis, in turn, accuse the US of violating the laws of war by blasting ambulances, striking mosques, and killing civilians, including women and children.

"They are not the least bit hesitant to hide behind women and children," charges Conway. "These people need to be eliminated, and it will be our job to do that."

Marines here say they are itching for that fight; one uniformed marine contractor says US forces have had to "work under so many [political] restraints." But the recent lethality has brought a grudging respect of their adversary. "They are capable enough," says Lt. Steve Karabin, of West Palm Beach, Fla., who accompanied Woodward.

"They are capable of pulling the trigger," agrees Sgt. Sean Crane, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., whose bloodshot eyes attest to stressful nights on duty. "They are more capable than the Iraq Army was during the war," says Woodward. "They want to go to heaven, and we're helping them get there. They are going to run out of food, water, ammunition, and people."

The Marines are dug in around the city, though guerrillas are "coming to us" and "paying a very high price," says Woodward.

Guerrillas have fired four to five rockets a day recently at marine positions and into the city itself, these marines contend, to create civilian casualties that are then blamed on US forces. "We watched them fire rockets into the city - 122mm rockets - and we don't have positions there," says Woodward. "It makes great TV."

The continued fighting has made the return of families to the city, limited to 50 a day by Monday's agreement, dry up. Only 20 families were permitted to cross Wednesday, and none crossed Thursday.

US forces here echo doubts about the cease-fire expressed recently by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, since the deal wasn't signed with the guerrillas, or the Saudi, Yemeni, and Syrian militants that US forces and Iraqis say are among them. "A lot of bad things come from the cease-fire," says Lance Cpl. Jose Ramirez of Texas.

"They've shown they won't give up their weapons," says Cpl. Daniel Fritz from Syracuse, Utah. "This can't last forever."

Though it has been quieter recently, units are preparing for more combat like that during April's first two weeks, when the sky near this base was lit up with what guards on duty call fireworks. "We could read the serial numbers on some of those rockets," says Cpl. Simon Gutierrez, a guard from Houston, Texas.

"If the negotiators can't manufacture a peaceful scenario," says Conway, "then we'll have to do what we came here to do."

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