25 September, 2004
By Fadel al-Badrani
FALLUJA, Iraq (Reuters) - U.S. aircraft has launched new air strikes in the rebel-held city of Falluja aimed at killing supporters of a Jordanian militant who has led a campaign of suicide bombings and kidnappings in Iraq.
In one attack on Saturday, the U.S. military said it targeted supporters of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and that no innocent civilians were in the area. In a second operation, U.S. forces responded with a "precision air strike" against a house after American troops came under small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire.
But doctors at Falluja's main hospital said at least seven civilians were killed and 13 wounded, including women and children.
Reuters television pictures showed a crowd of Iraqis digging through the ruins of a destroyed building and pulling out survivors, including two women and two children.
"Intelligence sources reported that Zarqawi terrorists were using the site to plan additional attacks against Iraqi citizens and multinational forces," U.S. for ces said in a statement.
"There were no innocent civilians reported in the immediate area at the time of the strike," it said. "Multinational forces took multiple measures to minimise collateral damage and civilian casualties."
Zarqawi's group said this week it had killed American hostages Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley, and posted video footage on the Internet showing them being beheaded.
The Tawhid and Jihad group says it will also kill Briton Kenneth Bigley, 62, unless Iraqi women are released from U.S.- run jails. Bigley was snatched along with the two Americans at their house in Baghdad last week.
Prominent British Muslims arrived in Baghdad on Saturday to plead for the release of Bigley.
"Our religion is one of compassion and love," Musharraf Hussain, a member of the two-person delegation from the Muslim Council of Britain, told reporters.
"We believe in the power of prayer turning people's heart and we can only have that trust and reliance in our God... If (the captors) have faith in the ir hearts and the seeds of true submission to God then there will be some change and it can show that miracles do happen."
There have been three audacious raids to seize foreigners in Baghdad this month. Two female Italian aid workers were kidnapped more than two weeks ago, and on Thursday evening two Egyptian workers were snatched from their office in the capital.
Two guerrilla groups have said they killed the Italian women but gave no proof, and Rome said the claims were unreliable. An Islamist Web site that earlier reported the Italians had been killed said on Saturday Bigley had been too. The British Foreign Office said the claim lacked credibility.
U.S. OFFICIALS AT ODDS ON POLLS
U.S. forces have mounted repeated air strikes on Falluja targeting supporters of Zarqawi, who has a $25 million bounty on him. The city, 50 km (32 miles) west of Baghdad, is seen as a haven for insurgents and foreign fighters.
After heavy fighting in the city in April killed hundreds of Iraqis and sparked widespread an ger, U.S. marines pulled out, handing responsibility for security to an Iraqi force. That force has collapsed and the city is controlled by insurgents.
The U.S. military has conceded it is not in control of rebel strongholds like Falluja and nearby Ramadi, but says it will launch a campaign to retake them ahead of elections in January. Four U.S. marines were killed on Friday in three attacks in the Iraqi province that includes Falluja and Ramadi.
On Saturday, a U.S. soldier was killed in Baghdad after his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb, the U.S. military said.
Since the start of the war in Iraq, at least 796 U.S. military and Pentagon personnel have been killed in action.
The question of whether some areas may have to be excluded from the polls has put U.S. officials at odds.
Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld conceded on Thursday that elections might not be possible in areas in rebels hands. That contrasted with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage who said elections had to be "open to all citizens".
Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi called on world leaders to put aside disagreements over the war in Iraq to help his nation. Violence, he said, would not stop polls going ahead in January.
In the latest guerrilla attack on Iraq's fledgling security forces, gunmen opened fire on men travelling to a Baghdad recruitment centre in a van, killing seven, the U.S. military said. Insurgents also fired mortars at the Oil Ministry building in Baghdad, but there were no casualties.