Air Strike Rocks Falluja


October 12, 2004

By Fadel al-Badrani

FALLUJA, Iraq (Reuters) - American warplanes have flattened Falluja's most popular restaurant overnight, killing two security guards, in what the military said was a "precision strike" aimed at its top enemy in Iraq.

The kebab joint was reduced to a smoking pile of crushed concrete slabs and twisted metal after the raid.

The U.S. military said it targeted militants loyal to Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has a $25 million (14 million pound) price on his head.

"Following the engagement, secondary explosions were reported, indicating the strong likelihood of weapons caches and explosive devices," said a military statement on Tuesday. "Terrorists frequently planned operations from this location."

Witnesses in the rebel-held city said the attack killed two civilian guards at the restaurant on Falluja's main street.

Reuters television footage showed a sign from the Haji Hussein restaurant on the ground as the building burned.

Zarqawi has claimed responsibility for some of Ira q's bloodiest suicide bombings and beheadings of foreign hostages.

"Zarqawi does not come here. Where is Zarqawi? We have not seen Zarqawi," yelled one man in a gathering crowd.

The attack came amid talks between Falluja representatives and the U.S.-backed interim government aimed at restoring calm to the Sunni Muslim city, hit by frequent U.S. air strikes in the past few weeks.

Some Falluja insurgents have indicated a willingness to allow Iraqi security forces back into the city, 50 km (32 miles) west of Baghdad, if U.S. troops stay out.

Chief Falluja negotiator Sheikh Khaled al-Jumaili said progress had been made in talks with Iraqi Defence Minister Hazim al-Shaalan and Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih.

"We have overcome a hurdle in the talks," he said, without elaborating. "We have a final round of talks today and expect to make an announcement on a truce."

Truce deals have failed before.

A major U.S. offensive failed to root out insurgents in April, leaving guerrillas in firm control of Fa lluja after fighting in which hundreds of Iraqis were reported killed.

Stability in Falluja, Iraq's most rebellious town, is crucial for the interim government's plans to hold nationwide elections scheduled for January.

The U.S. military said the target of the overnight bombing had been under "the terrorist organisation's control" for more than a year and "innocent civilians knowingly stayed away".

But residents said the restaurant had been as popular as ever over the past 12 months.

The U.S. military has said its recent operations have led to the killing or capture of a "large percentage of Zarqawi's leadership". Suspicious Iraqis ask why the captured foreign militants have not been named or shown on television.

In a separate incident, witnesses said a U.S. military patrol opened fire at a car on a highway just outside Falluja and killed five civilians on Monday. The U.S. military said it had no information on the reported shooting.