Behind a barrage of tank and artillery fire, United States troops charged on Saturday into southern Fallujah, overrunning the final insurgent stronghold in the city after nearly a week of intense urban combat that has killed 24 Americans and more than 1Â 000 insurgents.
US military officials said that their troops had now “occupied” the entire city and there were no more major concentrations of insurgents still fighting. Artillery and airstrikes ended on Saturday night.
However, US officers said the resistance had not been entirely subdued and that it could still take several days of fighting to clear the final pockets.
Iraqi authorities jubilantly declared the operation to destroy insurgent control of Fallujah “is accomplished” but acknowledged that the two most wanted figures — Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Sheik Abdullah al-Janabi — had escaped.
Rebel attacks elsewhere in the country — especially in the northern metropolis of Mosul — forced the US military to shift forces away from Fallujah. Exploiting that move, insurgent attacks increased in areas outside Fallujah, including a bombing that killed two marines near the city.
Military activity surged on Saturday throughout the Euphrates River valley north and west of Baghdad, with clashes reported in Qaim on the Syrian border, Hit and Ramadi.
Elsewhere, a series of thunderous explosions rocked central Baghdad after sunset on Saturday, and sirens went off in the fortified Green Zone, which houses major Iraqi and US offices. A car bomb exploded on the main road to the airport, which is closed to civilian traffic, and clashes occurred near the Education Ministry
in the heart of the capital.
At least four people were killed and 29 others injured, police said, during a US airstrike on rebels and clashes on Saturday in the Abu Ghraib area of western Baghdad. One Iraqi was killed and 10 injured in fighting between US troops and insurgents in the northern city of Tal Afar.
The attack against southern parts of Fallujah was aimed at what US commanders believe is the last major concentration of fighters left in the city, following five days of air and ground assaults that have cleared insurgents from more than 80% of their former sanctuary.
“We are just pushing them against the anvil,” said Colonel Michael Formica, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 2nd Brigade. “It’s a broad attack against the entire southern front.”
As a prelude to the assault, a US warplane dropped a 226kg bomb on Saturday to destroy an insurgent tunnel network in the city, CNN embedded correspondent Jane Arraf reported.
US and Iraqi forces have also begun moving against insurgent sympathisers among Iraq’s hardline Sunni religious leadership, arresting at least four prominent clerics and raiding offices of religious groups that had spoken out against the Fallujah assault.
US officials said they hoped the latest attack would finish off the last pocket of significant resistance in Fallujah, 65km west of Baghdad. That would be followed by a house-to-house clearing operation to search for boobytraps, weapons and guerrillas hiding in the rubble.
In Baghdad, Iraq’s national security adviser, Qassem Dawoud, proclaimed that Operation Al-Fajr, or Dawn, “is accomplished” except for mopping up “evil pockets which we are dealing with now”.
“The number of terrorists and Saddam [Hussein] loyalists killed has reached more than 1Â 000,” Dawoud said. “As for the detainees, the number is 200 people.”
However, Dawoud said that al-Zarqawi, whose al-Qaeda-linked group was responsible for numerous car-bombings and beheadings of foreign hostages, and the main Fallujah resistance leader, Sheik al-Janabi “have escaped.”
The United States has offered a $25-million reward for al-Zarqawi.
As US forces pressed their attacks in southern Fallujah, marines in the northern districts were hunting for about a dozen insurgents dressed in Iraqi National Guard uniforms after reports they were wandering the city.
“Any [Iraqi National Guard] or [Iraqi special forces] not seen with the marines are to be considered hostile,” Lieutenant Owen Boyce (24) of Hartford, Connecticut, told his men.
US and Iraqi officials want to restore control of Fallujah and other Sunni militant strongholds before national elections on January 31.
A four-vehicle convoy of the Iraqi Red Crescent carrying humanitarian assistance arrived in Fallujah on Saturday after the Iraqi and US troops allowed them to pass.
In the southern city of Nasiriyah, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said he expected the operation in Fallujah to conclude by the end of the weekend, with a “clear-cut victory over the insurgents and the terrorists.
“We have captured their safe houses, where they killed people,” Allawi said.
“We have captured the masks they wore when they slaughtered and decapitated people.”
Allawi, a Shiite Muslim, brushed aside suggestions that the operation would create a backlash among the country’s Sunni minority.
“There is no problem of Sunnis or Shi’ites,” he said. “This is all Iraqis against the terrorists. We are going to keep on breaking their back everywhere in Iraq. We are not going to allow them to win.”
Despite the evident military succcess in Fallujah, US commanders have warned that the insurgency in Iraq will continue — evidenced by the recent spike in clashes and confrontations throughout the Sunni Muslim region of central Iraq.
The US command withdrew one battalion from the 25th Infantry Division from Fallujah and returned it to Mosul after clashes erupted on Thursday Insurgents attacked police stations, bridges and government buildings in clashes that killed 10 Iraqi troops and one US soldier.
Mosul was quieter on Saturday, but a car bomb exploded as an Iraqi National Guard convoy sent in from Kirkuk passed by, witnesses said. Seven National Guardsmen were wounded.
The region’s governor blamed the uprising on “the betrayal of some police members” and said National Guard reinforcements — many of them ex-members of the Kurdish peshmerga militia taken from garrisons along the Syrian and Iranian borders — had arrived to help quell the violence. The events in Mosul cast further doubt on capabilities of Iraqi forces to maintain order — a key US strategy goal.
Fierce fighting in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq has taken its toll on the Americans. More than 400 wounded soldiers have been transported to the US military’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Centre in Germany, a hospital spokesperson said. – Sapa-AP
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