New York Times
November 16, 2004
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Nov. 15 - A rebel counteroffensive swept through central and northern Iraq on Monday as American troops struggled to flush the remaining insurgents from the rubble-strewn streets of Falluja.
Guerrillas in Baquba, Mosul, Kirkuk and Suwaira stormed police stations, set oil wells ablaze and struck at American military convoys with suicide car bombs, routing Iraqi security forces in several coordinated assaults and severely damaging parts of the country's petroleum-based economic lifeline.
A five-hour gun battle broke out in the southernmost reaches of Falluja Monday morning, a day after tanks and other armored vehicles fought their way through the area and had seemingly quashed all remaining resistance to the weeklong offensive. But some rebels had stayed hidden in the bombed-out landscape of the district and came out fighting around dawn, killing at least two marines.
"They're clearly fighting until the last man,'' said Lt. Col. Gareth Brandl, commander of the First Battalion, Eighth Regiment, First Marine Expeditionary Force.
The wave of attacks across the Sunni Muslim heartland suggested that guerrillas were ready to carry on the war despite the loss of their safe haven in Falluja. The most intense fighting took place in the morning in Baquba, northeast of the capital. Insurgents there ambushed American troops near a downtown police station and laid siege to another station in a southern suburb.
As the Americans battled near the first station, more insurgents began firing down on them from a nearby mosque, said Capt. Bill Coppernoll, a spokesman for the Army's First Infantry Division. The fighting became so intense that American jets dropped two 500-pound bombs on the insurgents, and up to 20 fighters were killed, he said.
Overnight, insurgents attacked an oil storage tank in the north and set fire to four oil wells. In Mosul, torn by a daring revolt that began last week, guerrillas tried ramming an American patrol and a checkpoint with suicide car bombs, wounding at least five soldiers. The Iraqi interior minister, Falah al-Naqib, said he expected the rebels to mount more ambitious strikes.
"Today, it's quieter in Mosul, but we expect a surge in attacks in the coming two days,'' he said at a news conference in Baghdad.
On Sunday, he said, insurgents snatched a wounded policeman from his hospital bed, killed and mutilated the man and hung his corpse in a public area.
Since the American-led invasion of Iraq 19 months ago, the insurgents have demonstrated a remarkable adaptability in the face of vastly superior American firepower. American commanders acknowledge that rebel leaders fled Falluja in the days before the invasion and are probably behind the current counteroffensive.
On Monday evening, an Internet audio recording attributed to the country's most wanted militant leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, exhorted fighters in Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle to keep up the war against the Americans.
"Once they have finished in Falluja, they will head toward you,'' Mr. Zarqawi said. "You must not let them succeed in their plan.''
"The war is very long, and always think of this as the beginning,'' he said. "And always make the enemy think that yesterday was better than today.''
In a written statement on Monday, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said the leader of a militant group called the Army of Muhammad had been arrested. He identified the man as Moayed Ahmed Yassin.
The Army of Muhammad is believed to be responsible for the beheadings of several Iraqi and foreign hostages and is the armed wing of a group created by Saddam Hussein to fight for the return of his Baath Party, Dr. Allawi said.
The prime minister's office confirmed Monday that two of Dr. Allawi's relatives had been released by kidnappers. Last Tuesday, insurgents seized Dr. Allawi's 75-year-old cousin, Ghazi Majeed Allawi, the cousin's wife and their daughter-in-law. The next day, a group called Ansar al Jihad posted an Internet message saying the three would be beheaded unless Dr. Allawi called off the siege of Falluja and released all prisoners in Iraq.
The two women have been freed, but the fate of the cousin, Ghazi Allawi, is unknown.
Gunmen carried out near-simultaneous attacks on a police station and an Iraqi National Guard station in the town of Suwaira, 25 miles south of the capital, The Associated Press reported. Five guardsmen and two policemen were killed, including Maj. Hadi Refeidi, the director of the Suwaira police station.
In a telephone interview with reporters at the Pentagon on Monday, Col. Michael Regner, the operations officer for the First Marine Expeditionary Force, said American forces had secured all of Falluja, but were still fighting with bands of die-hard insurgents in bombed out buildings and winding alleys.
"One hundred percent of that city is secure,'' Colonel Regner said, adding that American and Iraqi forces "can go anywhere, anytime in that city.''
But even after the battle on Monday in Shuhada, the southern neighborhood that was the insurgents' last stronghold in Falluja, sniper fire kept troops sporadically pinned down and gunfire could be heard.
Colonel Regner declined to provide estimates of the number of insurgents killed, saying, "It is not a true reflection of the success we've had.''
Commanders in Iraq are required to report estimates of the numbers of fighters their troops have killed, but this is often an inexact science. Some numbers are derived from actual counts of bodies, but others come from gauging how many fighters were in a building before it was pulverized by a bomb or before their remains were taken away for the quick burial required by Islamic tradition.
But Colonel Regner said that as of Monday afternoon, 1,052 insurgents had been captured, all but one or two dozen of whom were Iraqis. The others were foreign fighters from countries he did not identify.
He said 38 American soldiers had been killed in the Falluja operation and 320 wounded. Of the wounded, 134 had returned to duty. He said there had been 6 Iraqi soldiers killed in action and 28 wounded, two of whom had returned to duty.
The danger for troops now, he said, was from small bands of fighters, up to a dozen in a group, popping out of "spider holes'' and shooting American troops in the back or legs. "They are fighting to the death,'' he said.
Colonel Regner asserted that relief aid was beginning to flow into Falluja, and that engineers were now in the city, examining how to restore electricity. Military programs for disbursing aid and restoring infrastructure have bogged down in other cities, like Najaf, where American-led assaults caused widespread damage.
Even as fighting in Falluja was dying down, violence was increasing in nearby Ramadi, Colonel Regner said. He said that "for a week it's been tougher in Ramadi'' than it was before the Falluja offensive began.
He said a second Marine battalion had been sent to Ramadi to bolster the battalion that had been in place there, and that American forces were killing or capturing an undetermined number of insurgents, some of whom had fled Falluja, and seizing weapons throughout the city.
The battle in Baquba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, began about 7 a.m., when insurgents with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades attacked American troops near a downtown traffic circle and police station. Guerrillas also fired at the Americans from a mosque, Captain Coppernoll said.
Once American and Iraqi forces killed or chased off the insurgents, he said, they searched the area around the mosque and found three rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 29 rocket-propelled grenade rounds, 2 mortar devices, 10 mortar rounds and hundreds of bullets.
At the same time, insurgents attacked the police station in the southern suburb of Buhriz, long a trouble spot, and burned four police cars.
At 7:50 p.m., in Old Baquba, at least 15 insurgents piled off a bus and took up positions along a rooftop, Captain Coppernoll said. They blocked off roads heading west by planting bombs. As the firefight surged, the Americans called in a fighter jet that dropped two 500-pound bombs on insurgents massed in an open area, the captain said.
As many as 20 insurgents were killed, and four Americans soldiers were wounded, he said. A doctor at Baquba Hospital told Reuters that the hospital had received eight dead from the fighting.Farther north, guerrillas set fire to four oil wells near the Kirkuk fields. They also bombed a pipeline leading west to the oil refinery in Bayji, the largest in Iraq. Other fighters attacked an oil storage tank by the export pipeline leading from Kirkuk to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.
The bombing of the storage tank took place southwest of Mosul, where American and Iraqi forces are struggling to recover from a revolt that began on Thursday, when insurgents overran a half dozen police stations and made off with weapons, body armor and squad cars. Hundreds of policemen fled. At least seven policemen and 30 fighters have been killed in recent clashes, Mr. Naqib, the interior minister, said.
Insurgents driving two car bombs attacked an American patrol on the road to Tal Afar, a guerrilla stronghold west of Mosul, said Lt. Col. Paul Hastings, a spokesman for Task Force Olympia, the units charged with controlling northern Iraq. The first car bomb missed a light-armored Stryker vehicle and detonated, wounding five soldiers. The second was destroyed by gunfire.
Guerrillas have begun using tandem suicide car bombs recently, Colonel Hastings said. The number of car bombs in Mosul has at least doubled during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, which ends on Tuesday, Colonel Hastings said.
Other clashes erupted around Mosul. A bomb exploded beneath a police car at the Zahoor police station, one of the stations looted and burned by rebels last Thursday.
But the violence had calmed since then, and children could be seen playing in some parks.
At one playground, Amin Muhammad, 10, and his friends raced around with plastic guns. "We divide ourselves into two teams,'' he said, "the mujahedeen versus the American forces.''
And in their battles, he said, the mujahedeen always win.
Dexter Filkins contributed reporting from Falluja for this article, Eric Schmitt from Washington and an Iraqi employee of the New York Times from Mosul.