U.S. marines launch attacks in Fallujah
U.S. Marines launched air and ground attacks Thursday on the insurgent bastion Fallujah after city representatives suspended peace talks with the government over Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's demand to hand over terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Late Thursday, residents of the city, 40 miles west of Baghdad, reported shuddering American bombardments using planes and armored vehicles in what they said was the most intensive shelling since U.S. forces began weeks of "precision strikes" aimed at al-Zarqawi's network.
Meanwhile, insurgents struck deep inside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, setting off bombs at a market and a popular cafe killing at least 10 people — including four Americans — and wounding 20 others.
In Washington, a senior military official, speaking on operational matters on condition of anonymity, described the latest fighting in Fallujah as strikes against specific targets and of the same scope as previous attacks.
Warplanes and artillery pounded the city as two U.S. Marine battalions attacked rebel positions to "restore security and stability," 1st Lt. Lyle Gilbert, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, told CNN.
"It is going to be a long night," he said.
Maj. Francis Piccoli, spokesman for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, told The Associated Press that two Marine battalions were engaged in the fight backed up by aircraft.
He would not say the attack was the start of a major campaign to recapture the city, saying he did not want to jeopardize any future operations.
Piccoli said the goal of the operation was to "disrupt the capabilities of the anti-Iraqi forces."
"Ultimately, the intent is to help the Iraqi government bring in democracy," he added. "As you bring in sustained security and stability, the Iraqi government can build on as they go into elections" in January.
U.S. officials believe al-Zarqawi's terrorist group, Tawhid and Jihad, is headquartered in Fallujah. The group purportedly claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings inside the heavily guarded Green Zone in Baghdad on Thursday, according to a statement posted on a Web site known for its Islamic content. The unprecedented attack killed 10 people, including four Americans, and wounded 20.
The U.S. military said its targets were linked to al-Zarqawi's terrorist network, including a building being used to store weapons, two safehouses used to plan attacks, several illegal checkpoints and a weapons cache.
At least five people were killed and 16 wounded, according to Fallujah General Hospital.
Fallujah residents said the Americans were attacking several areas with rockets, artillery and tanks. One resident said U.S. forces were using loudspeakers in the west of the city to urge Fallujah fighters to lay down their arms "because we are going to push into Fallujah."
Residents reached by telephone from Baghdad also said there were sharp clashes in the northern part of the city, which was a major battlefield during last April's Marine siege of Fallujah.
Allawi warned Wednesday that Fallujah must surrender al-Zarqawi and other foreign fighters or face military attack.
Abu Asaad, spokesman for the religious council of Fallujah, said that "handing over al-Zarqawi" was an "impossible condition" since even the Americans were unable to catch him.
"Since we exhausted all peaceful solutions, the city is now ready to bear arms and defend its religion and honor and it's not afraid of Allawi's statements," Asaad said in a live interview with Al-Jazeera television.
However, he used the Arabic word for "suspend," implying that the talks could resume later.
"We are not afraid of Ayad Allawi's statements or the American troops," Asaad said. "The government now is an (American) agent that is working to make this city easy for American troops to enter and do what they want."
Negotiations had been aimed at restoring government control to Fallujah, which fell under the domination of clerics and their armed mujahedeen followers after the end of the three-week Marine siege last April.
"Military operations didn't even stop when the negotiating delegation was in Baghdad," Asaad said. "Dozens are killed every day. Entire families have been eliminated."
The government made no comment about the breakdown of the Fallujah talks. However, national security adviser Qassem Dawoud said military operations against Fallujah "will continue" until the city "has been cleansed" of "terrorists."
Dawoud said he is hopeful the delegation will succeed in ridding the city of insurgents.
"I hope they can succeed and can take them away from Fallujah as soon as possible, or otherwise, we're preparing ourselves to smash them ... by military means," he said.