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Fight for Fallouja Began With a Ruse

Times Staff Writer

As military planners sketched a large-scale attack on what was a rebel stronghold, they focused on two key goals: Get the civilians out of town and catch the insurgents off guard.

Tens of thousands of leaflets were dropped over this city urging people to leave. Anyone listening to the news knew an invasion was imminent.

U.S. forces had engaged for weeks in small attacks on the city’s southern and eastern edges, where the flat terrain was suitable for an invasion. From their redoubts, guerrillas could observe U.S. armored vehicles kicking up dust and gearing up for an offensive.

It was all a ruse. The insurgents apparently bought it.

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“We showed them what they expected to see,” Col. Craig Tucker said Monday, a satellite map of the battle site laid out on the hood of a Humvee at a command post near the mayor’s office. “There were feints coming in from the south and southeast. And what looked like lots of preparations for us attacking from there.”

When the invasion began a week ago, U.S.-led forces stormed from the north in concentrated formations across three miles.

Because rough terrain restricted use of military vehicles, the leading edge of the attack was five Marine infantry battalions -- thousands of riflemen on foot, backed by tanks, in a spectacular offensive that evoked images of World War I. The infantry swept through the city quicker than expected, despite intense fighting.

“I think it was beyond their comprehension how much combat firepower we sent down there,” said Tucker, who heads Regimental Combat Team 7, one of the two main attack groups.

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Upon entering the city, U.S.-led troops encountered heavy insurgent fire -- but few civilians. Most had left, a fact that would ease the Americans’ task considerably in coming days, as forces pushed to the south, where militants had set up their defenses.

“The story here for me is how we successfully convinced the local population that they would be safer to leave the city,” said Col. John Ballard, who heads the Marines’ 4th Civil Affairs Group and is in charge of the U.S.-led reconstruction effort in Fallouja, home to about 300,000 people.

Widespread reports before the attack that insurgents were forcing people to stay -- in effect, using them as human shields -- proved inaccurate. Marines found block after block abandoned, leaving alleys, homes and streets to the insurgents.

“In terms of civilians, it was a relatively clean battlefield,” Tucker said.

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That was crucial, since commanders wanted to keep civilian casualties low. During last spring’s aborted offensive, reports of hundreds of dead civilians provoked an outcry in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world and contributed to the Bush administration’s decision to withdraw from the city.

During the last week, the Arab media have reported that many civilians have been killed, but U.S. officials contend that is not true.

“I have seen no evidence of a humanitarian disaster,” said Ballard, a reservist who teaches a class on post-hostilities reconstruction at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. “I’m looking for this mysterious disaster that is supposedly out there in the press. And I’m not finding it.”

In the last few days, Ballard said, Marines facilitated the departure of hundreds of people who wanted to abandon the war-ravaged city.

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“We have slowly but surely pushed them toward the rear, then we’ve put them in trucks, and we’ve moved them to safer areas outside the city,” the colonel said from a Marine command center in the City Hall complex downtown. “When we’ve done that, we’ve dropped them off food and water and blankets.”

Marines could provide no statistics on civilian casualties. But Ballard said the city’s main hospital, which U.S.-led forces seized hours before the invasion, is functioning and has been provided with medical supplies. There are no patients, he said, because all were transferred to other facilities when the fighting began.

Marines, and some allied Iraqi troops, have also relocated civilians to relatively safe areas within the city and provided them with food and other supplies, commanders say. But it will be at least a week before civilians will be allowed back in, Marines say. Combat is continuing, and danger -- from gunfire and unexploded ordnance and wreckage that litter the streets -- remains high.

At the moment, there is no running water, electricity or steady food supply. Roads in and out of town are blocked.

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Returning military-age men will also be investigated to ensure that they are not insurgents. Commanders are concerned about the possibility of car bombs and other attacks when residents begin returning.

The fact that many here have extended families elsewhere who have taken them in has helped avert a humanitarian crisis, military officials say.

“If this was an American city of 300,000, there would be 100,000 people sitting out there with their cars in drive ready to come back in here,” Ballard said.

The U.S. forces penetrated down relatively narrow corridors, a tactic designed to protect flanks and avoid being isolated.

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“We knew his [the insurgent’s] objective was going to be to try and cut off small elements -- squads or platoons -- and then mass his combat power against [them],” Tucker said.

Many insurgents wore new athletic shoes, probably because it made it easier for them to run. Some would drop their weapons in mid-fight and sprint to buildings where they had apparently left other weapons. A brick on a string or other signs alerted them that weapons were to be found there. Ultimately, the overwhelming U.S.-led force prevailed.

Insurgents who survived fled to the south, where the most hard-core fighters are said to have holed up in a 500-yard strip at the edge of the desert.

On Monday, the pounding of rebel positions continued in the south. Street-to-street combat prevailed in what U.S. commanders called the last stand for the guerrillas, including what U.S. officials said were cadres of volunteers from Arab countries and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

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Marines in the south say they have found trenches, other fortifications and what they described as an underground guerrilla training complex. The military dropped a 2,000-pound bomb on the complex, the largest munition used here to date.

U.S. forces used tank rounds and dropped a 500-pound bomb on a mosque complex where Marines say insurgents were hiding. The bomb sent clouds of black and gray smoke into the air.

Throughout the city, Marines have been uncovering weapons caches: houses and semitrailers stuffed with rockets, hand grenades, land mines and surface-to-air missiles. Troops have discovered bomb factories and, in one case, a site with three car bombs, ready to go.

Elsewhere, Marines have discovered homes where hostages were held and executed, officials say. The evidence, commanders say, suggests that Fallouja was a main base for the insurgency, funneling weapons, car bombers and recruits throughout Iraq.

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“This was not a functioning city.... This was an armed camp,” Tucker said. “This [was] the seventh circle of hell for terrorists. Everything they need -- the torture houses, the weapons caches, the population, the sanctuary, the training camps -- it was all right here for them. It’s not anymore.”

The insurgency extends well beyond this city -- and has flared in Mosul and elsewhere as U.S.-led troops captured Fallouja.

Marine commanders are optimistic that pacifying Fallouja signals the beginning of the end for the insurgency, which has thwarted U.S. plans in Iraq for 18 months and inflicted thousands of casualties on U.S. troops.

“I think it is a turning point,” said Maj. Gen. Richard F. Natonski, who heads the 1st Marine Division. “With the fall of Fallouja, the insurgents no longer have a sanctuary.... That will help break the back of the insurgency.”

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