/ 15 November 2004

Fighting sweeps Sunni Muslim heartland

Fierce battles between insurgents and United States and Iraqi forces killed at least nine people Monday in Baqouba — the latest in a wave of clashes that has swept Iraq’s Sunni Muslim heartland even as US forces move against the last remaining pockets of resistance in Fallujah.

A Red Cross spokesperson said a relief convoy of ambulances and supplies trying to enter Fallujah was turned back by Iraqi authorities or US marines on Monday. The Red Crescent and Red Cross have been unable to gain access to people inside Fallujah during more than a week of fighting.

Elsewhere, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s office confirmed that two of his female relatives who were kidnapped last week have been released. Allawi’s cousin, Ghazi Allawi (75), his cousin’s wife and his cousin’s pregnant daughter-in-law were abducted at gunpoint last Tuesday in western Baghdad’s Yarmouk neighbourhood.

”Yes, yes, the two women were released yesterday [Sunday],” said an Allawi spokesperson who declined to be named. There was no word on the cousin, Ghazi Allawi.

On Sunday, US marines found the mutilated body of a Western woman as they searched for militants still holding out in Fallujah.

The woman could not be immediately identified, but a British aide worker and a Pole are the only Western women known to have been taken hostage.

Insurgents attack in Baqouba

In Baqouba, US officials said the trouble started when insurgents attacked First Infantry Division soldiers with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire near a traffic circle and police station.

During the fighting, US troops came under fire from a mosque, the US military said. Iraqi security stormed the mosque and found rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds and other weapons and ammunition, the statement said.

The fighting took place in Baqouba and the neighbouring town of Buhriz, about 55km north-east of Baghdad.

American aircraft dropped two 225kg bombs on an insurgent position.

Four First Infantry Division soldiers were wounded, although two of them returned to duty, the military said. Nine Iraqis, including one attacker, a police officer and seven civilians, were killed and 11 Iraqis were injured in the fighting, according to Mohammed Zayad of the Baqouba hospital.

More than 1 200 die in Fallujah

The week-old offensive in Fallujah, the city that came to symbolise resistance to the US-led occupation, has left at least 38 American troops and six Iraqi soldiers dead. The number of US troops wounded is now 275, though more than 60 have returned to duty.

US officials estimated more than 1 200 insurgents have been killed.

On Monday, US forces resumed heavy air strikes and artillery fire, with warplanes making between 20 and 30 bombing sorties in Fallujah and surrounding areas. US ground forces were trying to corner the remaining resistance in the city.

American forces had attacked a bunker complex on Sunday in the city’s south where they discovered a network of steel-reinforced tunnels and underground bunkers. The tunnels connected a ring of facilities filled with weapons, an anti-aircraft artillery gun, bunk beds and a truck, according to a statement from the US military.

Marines also found the disembowelled body of a Western woman wrapped in a blood-soaked blanket on a street in Fallujah. Two foreign women — Margaret Hassan (59), director of Care international in Iraq, and Teresa Borcz Khalifa (54), a Polish-born long-time resident of Iraq — were abducted last month, but the body could not be identified without further tests.

Red Crescent convoy turned away

Civilians seeking medical care were told through loudspeakers and leaflets to contact US troops. In Geneva, the Baghdad spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Ahmed Rawi, said on Monday an Iraqi Red Crescent convoy of four ambulances and four trucks carrying supplies reached Fallujah General hospital on the city’s outskirts, but was unable to go further.

The hospital itself was well-supplied because no patients or wounded people have been able to reach it from the embattled city, Rawi said.

”Regretfully, there was no patient in sight,” he said.

In Baghdad, the Iraqi Red Crescent, the partner organisation of the Red Cross, said US forces and the Iraqi government prevented the aid convoy from crossing the Euphrates River into the main part of the city and told it to leave the hospital area as well.

Rawi said by telephone no reason was given for the refusal, but that the convoy then went to the south in hopes of entering nearby Amiriyah al-Fallujah, where there are camps for displaced residents who have fled the fighting.

Fallujah attack was ‘flawless’

In an interview, the US marine general who designed the ground attack on Fallujah said it had gone far more quickly than expected and that troops had fought their way across the city in just six days.

Major General Richard Natonski on Sunday described the ground war as a ”flawless execution of the plan we drew up. We are actually ahead of schedule.”

As fighting in Fallujah neared its conclusion, insurgent attacks escalated elsewhere in Sunni Muslim areas of Iraq.

Clashes between gunmen and Iraqi security forces early on Monday south of Baghdad killed seven Iraqi police and national guardsmen and injured five others, police said.

Gunmen carried out near-simultaneous attacks on a police station and an Iraqi National Guard headquarters in Suwayrah, about 40km south of Baghdad, police said. Two police officers and five national guardsmen were killed.

The dead included Major Hadi Refeidi, the director of the Suwayrah police station.

Before the clashes, national guardsmen opened fire at a booby-trapped car approaching their headquarters, killing the driver. The car was loaded with 400kg of TNT.

In the insurgent-heavy city of Ramadi, 115km west of the capital, heavy fighting erupted on Monday between militants and US forces, residents said. — Sapa-AP

Associated Press reporters Edward Harris in Fallujah and Robert H Reid, Sameer N Yacoub, Mariam Fam, Sabah Jerges, Katarina Kratovac and Maggie Michael in Baghdad contributed to this report

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