New York Times
November 6, 2004
NEAR FALLUJA, Iraq, Nov. 5 - American armored vehicles roared through the villages surrounding Falluja, the western town at the heart of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, on Friday as warplanes pounded rebel positions and ground forces ratcheted up their preparations for what appeared to be an imminent assault on the city.
Within Falluja, insurgents who were hiding themselves by day among a dwindling and embittered populace set up a defensive perimeter around the city and said they would defeat the Americans or die in a cause they called just.
Marines gathering outside the city practiced house-to-house fighting, while some American crews fitted their armored vehicles with front-loading shovels designed to unearth explosives buried in the roads on the way in. Marines fired artillery rounds throughout the day and night on positions around the city.
"We are going to rid the city of insurgents," said Lt. Col. Gary Brandl, a battalion commander in charge of about 800 marines at a base outside the city. "If they do fight, we will kill them."
Military intelligence officials say as many as 75 to 80 percent of the city's 250,000 residents have fled. That estimate was consistent with reports from inside Falluja.
As battle preparations went forward, top American commanders in Iraq and senior Bush administration officials in Washington were conducting final reviews of their own.
At the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md.,
American officials said the precise timing was being left to American commanders in the field and to Prime Minister Ayad Allawi of Iraq. "People here are asking, 'What about this issue?' or 'Have you thought about that?' But otherwise, they're leaving the planning up to the people on the ground," said a senior military officer in Washington.
Visiting European Union leaders in Brussels on Friday, Dr. Allawi reiterated his warning that "the window is really closing" on chances for a peaceful settlement of the standoff. Negotiators for the two sides have not met in more than a week.
At the United Nations, Secretary General Kofi Annan confirmed that he had formally expressed concern about the effects any invasion of Falluja would have on stability in the country ahead of elections scheduled for January. His concerns could cloud prospects for a major United Nations role in Iraq in the elections and afterward.
Dr. Allawi and American officials have insisted that they must reassert control over Falluja quickly in order to pave the way for the elections. Falluja lies squarely within a region of the country dominated by Sunni Arabs, a minority group whose participation in the elections is considered crucial if the outcome is to be accepted as legitimate. Favored under Saddam Hussein's rule, disenfranchised Sunnis are now leading the increasingly deadly insurgency.
Outside the city, the Americans were setting up military checkpoints to choke off access roads. Warplanes conducted at least five major airstrikes on Friday.
Insurgents inside the city continued their own preparations, filtering through waning crowds of ordinary people in the markets and on the streets.
A man who had been encountered at a fortified position on the perimeter of the city a few days before was seen downtown on Friday morning wearing a T-shirt and pants from a track suit. He was driving a motorcycle and carrying a huge bag of clips for an automatic rifle.
The man, who identified himself as Abu Muhammad, said the fighters were more numerous and better prepared than the last time they battled the Americans, in April. "We trust in God," he said, explaining why he thought that the insurgents were so strong. "We have two choices - victory or martyrdom."
Beyond those sentiments, the insurgents appear to have the benefit of some fairly sophisticated military advice. They have built a layered perimeter with at least one inner fortified ring that would give them a place to retreat to should the outer ring be breached.
American commanders in Iraq have expressed confidence they could complete their assault in a matter of days, but a senior officer said Friday that planners had no sure way of knowing how long insurgents would hold out. "Right now, they're hoping it doesn't go much longer than a week," the officer said.
Meanwhile, the insurgents continued with their deadly attacks. An American soldier was killed and five were wounded in an attack on a base near Falluja on Friday, the United States military reported. The injuries were said to be "the result of an indirect fire attack," a term the military generally reserves for mortars or rockets.
Two marines were killed during security operations around Ramadi, west of Falluja, on Thursday, while one soldier in the First Infantry Division died and another was wounded in Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, when an improvised bomb exploded near their vehicle.
[A group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an ally of Al Qaeda, claimed responsibility on Saturday for a car bombing that killed three British troops south of Baghdad on Thursday, Reuters reported. The men were among about 850 British soldiers sent to free up American forces for the attack on Falluja. Also on Saturday, two car bombs exploded in the town of Samarra north of Baghdad, killing at least 19 people and wounding at least 23, police said.]
As preparations for the battle of Falluja sped forward, there were warnings that it could have devastating consequences far from the small piece of turf at issue.
The Los Angeles Times reported Friday that Secretary General Annan of the United Nations had sent a letter to the governments of Britain, Iraq and the United States expressing concern that continued military attacks on the rebel-held city would alienate people and disrupt elections. The United Nations did not release the text of the letter and, in a corridor conversation with reporters, Mr. Annan confirmed its existence but declined to discuss it.
Asked about United Nations worries about the effect on the elections of the American-led military assault on Falluja, Kieran Prendergast, the under secretary for political affairs, said, "It is important to understand that elections are not a stand-alone event, that the context in which they are held is very important if they are to have the effect of promoting stability in Iraq."
American military officials said the exact timing of any attack on Falluja hinged on a range of factors. Officials in Washington said Dr. Allawi wanted more time to discuss with his cabinet, as well as religious and tribal leaders, the political and military ramifications of an American-led offensive. Some Sunni leaders have appealed to the interim government to call off any attack.
Military officials said the remaining residents in Falluja needed a last warning to leave the city before any assault began.
The chief Marine intelligence officer in Iraq, Col. Ronald S. Makuta, gave this description in an e-mail message from his headquarters at Camp Falluja, three miles east of the city: "Those remaining fall under the categories of not having enough money to move out or simply do not want to leave their homes and possessions for fear that these will be gutted and or robbed by the foreign fighters, local insurgents, and criminals. Insurgents continue to wage a brutal campaign of murder, assassination, terror, kidnapping, coercion, and intimidation. The criminal content has also taken advantage of the lawlessness in the city, and are pursuing similar means."
The operation is shaping up to be the largest since the American invasion of the country 20 months ago. A senior military officer said that roughly 25,000 American and Iraqi troops were surrounding Falluja and Ramadi and the corridor between the two cities. Another senior military official said that from 10,000 to 15,000 of those troops were immediately around Falluja. They face an Iraqi insurgent force in the city that Colonel Brandl estimated at a few thousand fighters.
It is all intended to set right the disastrous events of April, when a large force of marines attacked the city after the killing and mutilation of four American contractors there. Though the Americans were making steady progress in the city center, they were forced to halt their attacks when Iraqi leaders became unnerved over reports, largely unconfirmed, that hundreds of civilians had been killed there.
That time, the fighting in Falluja helped fuel armed uprisings in other parts of the country against the American presence here.
Iraqi leaders and American commanders say they are worried about similar risings now, particularly in volatile cities like Mosul, but they say that circumstances have shifted markedly since then. This time, with the American occupation formally over, Iraqi leaders are in charge and willing to take some of the political heat for the operations.
American soldiers preparing to move into the city say they expect to find homemade bombs along roads and fortified positions around the city's perimeter. The Americans said they were preparing for close-quarters urban fighting.
Thousands of Iraqi troops have moved into position with their American counterparts and are expected to take part. In the pattern set in similar operations in Najaf and Samarra, American soldiers are to do most of the fighting on the way in, clearing the way for the Iraqi security forces to take control once the insurgents are defeated. With this method, Iraqi and American leaders hope for the best of both worlds: American muscle and an Iraqi face.
The performance of the Iraqi security forces is viewed as crucial to the success or failure of the mission in Falluja. In April, entire units of the Iraqi police and national guard disintegrated before uprisings in Falluja and southern Iraq.
Now, American commanders say they have higher hopes, particularly because of the intensive training that Iraqi units have received.
Dexter Filkins reported from near Falluja for this article, and James Glanz from Baghdad. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, an Iraqi employee of The New York Times from Falluja, and Warren Hoge from the United Nations.