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U.S. Troops Advance to Fallouja’s Edge

Times Staff Writers

U.S. warplanes pummeled suspected insurgent positions in Fallouja early today as thousands of American troops advanced to the edges of the rebel-held city and prepared to launch an all-out assault.

Iraqi commandos and U.S. troops captured a hospital in Fallouja late Sunday. The facility was seized “to ensure that there was a medical treatment facility available to the population as well as making sure the insurgents could not continue to exaggerate casualties,” a senior Pentagon official said on condition of anonymity.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 10, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 10, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Fallouja photographs -- Captions with two photos in Monday’s Section A identified as Americans several soldiers involved in the capture of a hospital in Fallouja. Associated Press later said that both Iraqi and U.S. troops were involved in seizing the hospital and that because of the poor resolution of the television photos, a definite identification of the soldiers was not possible.

U.S. forces halted traffic in and out of Fallouja by nightfall, and roads in the surrounding countryside were blocked, presumably to stop fighters from escaping and to prevent reinforcements or arms from entering.

As dawn broke and a thunderstorm poured down rain, hundreds of Marines streamed out of bases near Fallouja. Scores of tanks, Humvees, amphibious assault vehicles and tow trucks moved in slow lines toward the city.

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Arriving at staging areas about a mile outside town, the troops dug ditches and built berms with shovels. Flames and smoke rose from the city as the U.S. launched a heavy artillery attack.

The military movements in Fallouja came hours after the Iraqi government declared a state of emergency in most of the country, anticipating that violence could escalate nationwide once U.S. forces stormed the city, about 35 miles west of Baghdad.

Although the looming showdown in Fallouja is in some ways a rematch of April’s abortive five-day Marine assault on the city, this battle could be much larger and longer.

This time, the U.S. troops have taken longer to prepare, and say they are determined to go in with overwhelming force and finish the fighting instead of withdrawing halfway through.

In April, fewer than 3,000 troops were initially deployed. This time, U.S. forces are known to have trained two regimental combat teams -- which could total more than 6,000 troops -- to spearhead the assault, including Marines, soldiers and sailors. In addition, the Air Force and thousands of Army and other troops are supporting the effort.

In another contrast with April’s assault, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has sent envoys to neighboring countries to explain his approach, hoping to avoid the kind of criticism Arab nations leveled at the United States over the spring attack.

The rebels, too, appear to be far more numerous and better organized and armed than they were in April, according to Falloujans who are in the city or have recently left.

U.S. intelligence officials estimate that up to 5,000 militants may be hunkered down in the city. Most are believed to be Iraqi, including many former members of Saddam Hussein’s army, but several hundred foreigners may also be present.

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Residents reported continual explosions Sunday evening, and some said that all the town wanted was peace.

“We are just a helpless and feeble town; a town like an old man! Still, the U.S. is accumulating its armies and troops against Fallouja ... as if Fallouja is a superpower that stands in the face of America,” said Haji Mahmood Allawi, a former colonel in the Iraqi army who has stayed in Fallouja for the fight. “If you look at what is arrayed against Fallouja, you would think World War III was going to take place.”

Residents warned that U.S. troops who entered Fallouja could face booby-trapped buildings, mined streets and dozens of suicide car bombers.

“People of Fallouja have encircled the city with mines.... Whenever the American troops try to advance, they will find them in their way,” said Fadel Jasim, 40, a shop owner.

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Insurgents have threatened to launch attacks throughout the country if Marines storm Fallouja, and in recent days, militants have stepped up assaults on Iraqi police and soldiers. A number of insurgents are believed to have left Fallouja in recent days to conduct attacks in other cities.

At least 70 people have been killed in the last two days. At dawn Sunday, 20 Iraqi policemen were slain in the western town of Haditha. On Saturday, 30 people were killed in bombings and shootings in Samarra, and in a previously unreported incident, 20 Iraqi national guard recruits were slain near Latifiya, south of Baghdad, a senior Iraqi government official said Sunday on condition of anonymity.

The increased violence prompted the government to invoke the emergency laws, which will be in effect for 60 days, said Thair Al Nakib, spokesman for Prime Minister Allawi.

Under the state of the emergency, the government has sweeping powers to impose curfews and cordons; use wiretaps and other listening devices; limit associations, unions and other organizations; and freeze bank accounts and seize assets.

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In addition, authorities could detain anyone believed to be involved in “an ongoing campaign of violence ... for the purpose of preventing the establishment of a broad-based government in Iraq, or to hinder the peaceful participation of all Iraqis in the political process,” officials said.

Detainees must appear within 24 hours before an investigative judge, but there is no limit on the detention period. Once in effect, the state of emergency can be extended indefinitely.

The only area of the country exempt from the emergency law is the northern region of Kurdistan, which has experienced little violence in recent months. It is thought the assault on Fallouja will not inflame passions or spark attacks in the region, which is dominated by Kurds.

The emergency law “is in response to the violation we are feeling in Iraq and it’s a clear message to all the people from outside who came to destabilize the country,” Nakib said.

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Allawi’s invocation of the law was starkly at odds with his declaration in late September on a visit to the United States that of Iraq’s 18 provinces, “14 to 15 are completely safe. There are no problems.”

Mohammed Bashar Faidi, spokesman for the Sunni Muslim Scholars Assn., predicted that the emergency laws would only worsen matters.

“This will increase the violence,” he said. “Now the government cannot protect itself, how can it control the country?”

A loud explosion was heard as Nakib briefed reporters on details of the emergency law. Later, it was reported that the blast was from a rocket hitting near the finance minister’s home.

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There were at least three other attacks Sunday, killing two U.S. soldiers, at least one Iraqi civilian and wounding several more people -- both Iraqis and U.S. soldiers.

As Marines prepared Sunday to take up positions around Fallouja, commanders sought to motivate the troops.

The town is “being held hostage by mugs, thugs, murderers and intimidators,” Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, head of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, told troops at a base where several thousand Marines had prepared for battle. “All they need for us is to give them the opportunity to break the back of that intimidation.”

Earlier, Maj. Gen. Richard F. Natonski, who heads the 1st Marine Division, visited barracks and said the battle for Fallouja would probably stand in Marine history along with other celebrated episodes.

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“The eyes of the world are upon you, and I know you won’t let us down,” Natonski said. “When they’re talking about the history of the Marine Corps 100 years from now, they’ll be talking about this battle.”

Senior commanders, however, expressed confidence that Fallouja could be secured in a matter of days and rejected comparisons to the bloody 1968 fight for the Vietnamese imperial city of Hue. More than 100 U.S. troops died in that battle, which lasted four weeks and required house-to-house fighting, leaving the city in ruins.

“I think you’re going to be so aggressive and so hard-hitting and so violent, this will be over very, very quickly,” Natonski told the Marines. “We’re going to kill these suckers who are just terrorizing the people.”

U.S. forces are expected to impose a curfew once an invasion begins. Commanders say any car on the street will be viewed as a potential suicide bomber.

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Military-age men would be questioned about any suspicious activity, officials said. U.S. commanders also warned Fallouja police officers -- widely believed to be working with the insurgents -- to put down their arms and stay in their homes or risk being shot. The prime minister has officially disbanded the Fallouja police, U.S. forces said.

Although promising a “decisive” victory, Lt. Col. Michael Ramos, head of the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment, and other commanders acknowledged that many insurgents probably would stash their arms and pretend to be civilians, and return to fight another day.

That tactic has already blunted the effectiveness of recent U.S. offensives in Samarra and elsewhere, where rebels re-emerged after U.S. troops withdrew.

“When they start to lose the battle, [the insurgents] will go to ground and try to blend back in with the civilian population,” Ramos said.

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U.S. forces plan to help install new security services that will be loyal to Allawi’s government. Many have already been recruited from outside Fallouja, officials say, a move that is expected to help reduce the threat of intimidation.

Rubin reported from Baghdad, Hendren from Washington and McDonnell from near Fallouja. Suhail Hussain of The Times’ Baghdad Bureau and a special correspondent in Fallouja contributed to this report.


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