US forces stand ready outside Fallujah

United States marines are on guard outside the rebel bastion of Fallujah, where they believe at least 2 000 fighters are ensconced, the majority of them followers of Iraq’s most-wanted man, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The US-led coalition and the Iraqi government are fighting to reassert control over lawless Fallujah, which fell into the hands of insurgents after an aborted marine-led assault on the city in April.

Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi warned Fallujah’s residents in October to hand over Zarqawi, who is suspected of masterminding the insurgency’s deadliest attacks and beheadings of hostages, or face a military onslaught.

The US military believes some of Zarqawi’s top men are in Fallujah, but is not sure about the whereabouts of the leader himself.

“Zarqawi’s network is firmly planted in Fallujah. Is he there? We don’t know. His key lieutenants are definitely there implementing his strategy of exporting terror,” a marine battlefield officer said.

“He probably has five to six key guys under him carrying out his intentions in Fallujah.”

The Jordanian-born Zarqawi, whose group has declared allegiance to the al-Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden, has a $25-million price on his head.

US military officials said their problem in tracking down militants is that Zarqawi’s network is a loose affiliation where insurgents pledge allegiance to their leader and receive cash and fighters from him.
But the chain of command does not follow traditional lines.

“It’s hard to get a grasp of their overall leadership,” the officer said.

He said Zarqawi relies for local muscle on a Fallujah resident named Omar Hadid who leads a 1 000- to 1 500-strong force, including many Syrian and Jordanian fighters.

“He is a local guy, a hometown hero,” the officer said, adding that Hadid saw evicting US forces from Iraq “as a crusade and decided to take up arms”.

Hadid, who the US military says displays leanings toward radical Islam and has links to Saddam Hussein’s toppled regime, emerged as a popular figure after the April fighting in Fallujah, the officer said.

“He has such a built up name, people send him foreign fighters. They send him recruits,” the officer said, adding that about 70% are foreigners from Jordan and Syria.

On top of Hadid’s guerrilla force, at least five foreign and Iraqi advisers to Zarqawi operate in Fallujah and help plot the ruthless militant’s national strategy of bombings, kidnappings and assassinations, the officer said.

“Hadid is more of a battlefield commander. The others are in a more advisory role.”

Along with Hadid’s fighters, another 1 000 militants are thought to be ready to battle US forces if they enter the Sunni Muslim-dominated city, with fighters gathering under the banners of local religious clerics.

“Other groups are organised around local mosques. People might say ‘I’m with the Islamic Army of Iraq.’ I don’t see an organised effort. It’s more ‘I want to go fight the Americans.’”

On top of the few thousand hardcore militants, the officer says the city counts another 10 000 military-age males who might decide to join the fight in the case of a US-led assault.

“It’s an unknown factor. Some might leave the city, some might stay to fight. Most would probably leave.”

The marines believe the city, with an estimated population of 250 000, has already seen a mass exodus of civilians, triggered by an escalation in US military operations around Fallujah and other rebel bastions such as Samarra earlier this year.

“I’ve heard up to 65% of the city has left,” said a marines spokesperson, Captain PJ Batty.

As the government prepares to make a final decision on whether negotiations can rid Fallujah of its insurgents and restore law and order, the US marines are there to keep up the pressure.

Along with the almost nightly air strikes on suspected insurgent positions, marines regularly patrol the city’s perimeter and set up spot checkpoints.

“These insurgents in Fallujah, they can surrender or not. If they want to come out and fight us, they are welcome too. If they [Iraqis] can come up with a political solution ... that’s the ultimate solution,” said Major Todd Desgrosseilliers, the second in command of the battalion assigned to Fallujah.

“When the politics break down, that is when the fighting begins.”—Sapa-AFP

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