Crouching in mosques, rebels traded fire with United States troops on Wednesday in the heart of Fallujah as the military pushed south after seizing 70% of the Iraqi city on the second full day of battle.
As the punishing beat of ground and air fire tore into pockets of resistance, the Red Crescent painted a grim picture of the humanitarian conditions inside and said it is sending a small team to evaluate.
“Coalition forces control 70% of the city,” said a senior US military officer, after US tanks and infantry forged with relative ease through much of the dusty network of streets, rolling from north to south.
At the current rate, the US military said it expects to achieve total control of the Sunni rebel enclave within 48 hours, even as insurgents regrouped in the south and fought from inside central mosques.
“They are trading fire in the centre of Fallujah. They are firing from several mosques,” said a US marine officer.
Unwilling to damage the buildings, marines held positions outside.
“We are seeing suspicious activities inside mosques but we are not moving in. We provide security around the site and wait for Iraqi security forces to move in,” said marine spokesperson Lieutenant Lyle Gilbert.
An AFP correspondent embedded with the marines said artillery and air strikes pounded the city on Wednesday, continuing the lethal rhythm of firepower that has destroyed one house in 10 in some areas.
Rebels are outgunned but tenacious in fighting for their stronghold, which became a no-go area for US forces after a battle in April ended in stalemate and the military withdrew. They are lurking inside crumbling houses and apartment buildings, shooting at the soldiers during breaks in the US shelling.
“We are facing an unorganised resistance in some points in the centre of the city and in the southern part,” a marine officer said.
He added, however: “The resistance we have met overall was not as organised as we had thought.”
At least 10Â 000 US troops from a pool of 20Â 000, who had been gathering outside Fallujah since the middle of October, have fanned out inside the city from north to south since Monday, backed by 2Â 000 Iraqi soldiers.
Dodging sniper fire and avoiding booby-trapped buildings, they have moved with greater ease than expected through Fallujah’s filthy streets, where they estimated that 2Â 000 to 2Â 500 fighters, some loyal to Iraq’s most wanted man, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, were lurking.
Victory in Fallujah may come at a heavy price, both on the military and the civilian side.
Eleven US soldiers and two Iraqi troops have died since the offensive was launched, along with scores of rebels, the military said. The casualties could not be independently verified.
But there are no clear figures about how many civilians have been caught in the crossfire, even though about two-thirds of Fallujah’s estimated 300Â 000-strong population is thought to have fled ahead of the fighting.
Concerns about medical facilities
The Red Crescent said it had serious concerns about medical facilities in the city after US and Iraqi troops seized the general hospital on Monday, before the full-scale offensive was launched.
Two Red Crescent officials and a local from Fallujah are headed for the city to evaluate the humanitarian situation inside, said Firdaws al-Ibadi, a spokesperson for the relief agency.
“We haven’t got the okay for the team to enter the city but something should be done,” she said.
The Red Crescent also plans to send a convoy on Thursday of five to six trucks laden with food into Fallujah, where a strict curfew has been imposed and water and electricity supplies cut.
A central mosque has been converted into a field hospital to treat the wounded, caught in the street fights, but it only has one medic as all the others are inside the main hospital, which was seized by US and Iraqi troops before they launched the full-scale offensive on Monday, Ibadi said.
“Our first mission is to obtain permission from the multinational forces to enter the city and start evacuating the wounded, the elderly, the children and women,” the Red Crescent spokesperson explained.
“If we fail to get the green light, we will ask to run the Fallujah general hospital,” Ibadi said, adding that the Red Crescent has a team of 10 ambulances, five surgeons and a number of nurses on standby.
There are also concerns over the well-being of the tens of thousands of people who have set up temporary homes in camps and villages around Fallujah. — Sapa-AFP