US advance in Falluja as rebels melt away

By Steve Negus in Baghdad

Financial Times

Published: November 11 2004

US and Iraqi government forces moved swiftly through the rebel stronghold of Falluja on Wednesday, claiming to have captured 70 per cent of the city and forecasting control of the rest within 48 hours.

Insurgents struck back, kidnapping three members of interim prime minister Iyad Allawi's family, while Iraqi cities prepared for more of the attacks that have left more than 100 people dead since the weekend.

US military officers said that rebel defences in the city had given way much more quickly than expected, with troops pushing through the centre of the city and capturing key municipal buildings.

“The combined Iraqi and multinational force operation had encountered light resistance along the way into the heart of the city, running into small pockets of fighters as they made their way through the restive town,” a US military statement said.

During the advance, Iraqi forces claim to have discovered “hostage slaughterhouses” with records of kidnap victims held by the insurgents.

Iraq's prime ministerial press spokesman Thaer al-Naqib said that many rebels had surrendered, and that the government was willing to extend an amnesty to others who had not committed major crimes.

However, US officers in Falluja have said that the light resistance may be due to the fact that Iraqi insurgents had fled the city before the assault.

Lieutenant General Thomas Metz, Senior US ground commander in Iraq, said on Tuesday that most-wanted militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, said to have been based in Falluja, had escaped.

An October assault on the rebel-held city of Samarra led to similar results when the town fell swiftly to the US and Iraqi government troops' advance, but rebel leaders reportedly faded into the background to fight another day.

As of Tuesday night, 10 US troops and two Iraqis were reported to have been killed in the attack.

US sources put the insurgents' toll at 71 dead, but expected the rebel casualty toll to rise as victims of air strikes were counted. Insurgents struck across Iraq on Wednesday, continuing a five-day wave of violence that has resulted in more than 150 reported deaths.

Dozens of armed men swarmed into two neighbourhoods of the northern city of Mosul, engaging in clashes with police that killed at least three people.

Mr Allawi's government slapped a curfew on the city and the northern oil-producing town of Bayji, also the site of clashes.

A late-night curfew was also imposed on Baghdad on Monday for the first time in over a year under the provisions of a state of emergency declared by Mr Allawi before the assault.

Meanwhile, a previously unknown militant group claimed credit for the abduction on Tuesday of Mr Allawi's cousin Ghazi Allawi, as well as the cousin's wife and daughter-in-law.

The internet statement said that the three would be executed if the assault on Falluja was not called off.

A statement from the prime minister's office lashed out at the “terrorist groups” who kidnapped a 75-year-old man who it said had no connection to politics.