U.S. Hits Fallouja With Airstrikes

By Patrick J. McDonnell

Los Angeles Times

September 11, 2004

BAGHDAD — U.S. forces today launched another round of airstrikes in Fallouja, pounding insurgent strongholds for the fourth straight day and reportedly killing one man.

Earlier, the U.S. had rolled into the insurgent bastion of Samarra and sought to reestablish Iraqi government control, hitting positions in Fallouja in the west and Tall Afar in the north.

The show of strength — along with the stated U.S. resolve to crush a Shiite Muslim militia in a Baghdad neighborhood — underscored the military's determination to exert control over the whole country in the months leading up to elections scheduled for January.

"This is a significant step forward where the good people of Samarra are taking control of their destiny," said Maj. Gen. John Batiste, commander of the Army's 1st Infantry Division. His troops entered the city for less than 24 hours, oversaw the selection of new civic leaders, and declared the military's intention to return to help staff checkpoints in coming days.

Also today, hundreds of people marched through Najaf, protesting against Muqtada Sadr, the rebel cleric whose followers have clashed repeatedly with U.S. and Iraqi forces, and demanded they leave the holy city. Iraqi soldiers reportedly blocked the group from reaching Sadr's office.

The U.S. moves against the three insurgent centers come after a surge in attacks this week pushed American military fatalities in Iraq to more than 1,000. The actions appeared designed to dispel the perception that growing swaths of Iraq had become "no-go" zones for U.S. troops, which commanders here forcefully deny.

"We will never give up our right to maneuver in any of our areas," said Maj. Neal O'Brien of the 1st Infantry Division, which patrols four provinces north of Baghdad.

About 150 soldiers converged on Samarra on Thursday, a spokesman said, backed by tanks, armored personnel carriers and attack aviation. They met no resistance.

But commanders acknowledge that as many as 500 insurgents remain in the city. The guerrillas' preference is to strike at smaller U.S. or Iraqi units. In classic guerrilla style, they tend to hide their weapons and blend in among residents when faced with larger forces.

U.S. troops pulled out at the end of the day for lack of a secure base at which to spend the night.

Two months ago, a suicide bomber drove a truck carrying explosives into an Iraqi national guard facility in Samarra that was guarded by U.S. troops, killing five Americans and several Iraqis. Last year, the Army moved its main base out of the city after a mortar shell killed two soldiers as they exercised in a makeshift gym at the site.

U.S. and Iraqi government troops are not in full control of several areas of the country, including Samarra to the north of Baghdad, Fallouja and Ramadi to the west, and the largely Shiite neighborhood known as Sadr City in the eastern part of the capital, where a Shiite militia holds sway. Other cities and towns, such as Tall Afar in the far northwest, have become guerrilla bastions where the U.S.-backed interim Iraqi government exerts only limited control.

The lack of security has blocked tens of millions of dollars in reconstruction projects in hostile areas. U.S. officials have dangled the projects before local leaders as incentives to cooperate, with uneven results.

The Army has largely stayed out of Samarra since May, at the request of local sheiks and other leaders, a military spokesman said. Such requests are common in Iraq, where an armed U.S. presence is often viewed as an incendiary element that encourages resentment and violence.

U.S. officials have generally been willing to lower the military profile if Iraqi authorities can demonstrate an ability to maintain order and root out insurgents. But the military insists it must have freedom of movement when necessary.

In Samarra, the U.S. approach since spring had been to allow local leaders to work out a way to disarm or otherwise neutralize a stubborn insurgent force that had disrupted government and police activities in the ancient city of 200,000.

The largely Sunni Muslim population has long posed a major challenge for U.S. forces. Samarra was the site of a large-scale U.S. offensive last winter designed to flush out a guerrilla force thought to be composed of religious militants, anti-American nationalists and loyalists of ousted President Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. During that offensive, a force of more than 3,000 soldiers also met little resistance as the guerrillas apparently blended into the populace to fight another day.

But in recent months, officials and residents say, Samarra had fallen back under de facto insurgent control. The Army blocked off the main bridge leading into the city in an effort to control access. A brisk boat service over the Tigris River provided an alternate access.

On Thursday, however, the Army declared "irreversible momentum" in the city, and said the bridge would be reopened as a "sign of good faith."

With U.S. troops present in force, local leaders agreed Thursday to a new City Council, interim mayor and acting police chief, the Army said. Commanders expressed hope that the new team would help restore order.

In Samarra, as elsewhere in Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland, insurgents have threatened and killed police officers, contractors and other "collaborators" who work with U.S. authorities. That has discouraged many people from having dealings with the Army or Marines. Samarra has had close to a dozen chiefs of police since U.S. forces toppled the Hussein government last year.

Unlike in Samarra, U.S. troops have not reentered Fallouja since that troubled city saw a large-scale withdrawal by Marines in April after heavy fighting that cost hundreds of Iraqi lives and caused widespread destruction. Fallouja has fallen under the control of insurgents and has emerged as a worldwide symbol of resistance to the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

Early Thursday, the U.S. bombed a building in Fallouja, at least the third airstrike on the town since a suicide attacker detonated a car bomb Monday alongside a convoy in the area, killing seven Marines and three Iraqis.

U.S. officials identified the house targeted Thursday as a base for fighters in the network of Abu Musab Zarqawi, a militant accused of masterminding suicide attacks and hostage killings in Iraq. "Clear and compelling intelligence" indicated that three Zarqawi associates were the only people in the area, the U.S. said.

But news services, quoting hospital officials in Fallouja, reported at least eight dead, including several children.

The fiercest fighting of the day was reported in Tall Afar, a city of 220,000 on a main road to the Syrian border. U.S. officials say the city has become a base for foreign fighters and other insurgents. Sporadic fighting in recent days has forced hundreds of people from their homes.

The fighting erupted again early Thursday, witnesses said, when U.S. forces sealed off the city, bombed suspected guerrilla positions and searched house to house for enemy forces.

At least 27 people were killed and 70 injured, according to health officials, who said the numbers were certain to rise because the fighting was continuing. Residents leaving the city accused U.S. troops of blocking the entry of ambulances after aerial and ground attacks had killed and injured many civilians.

Ambulances were being stopped and searched, the Army said, "because anti-Iraqi forces in Tall Afar have used ambulances to move about the city."

Special correspondents Raheem Salman in Samarra and Roaa Ahmed in Mosul contributed to this report, as did Times staff writer Daryl Strickland in Los Angeles.