U.S. and Iraqi forces pushed deeper into Fallouja today, taking control of 70% of the city, including mosques, the City Hall complex and other key buildings as they searched house to house for weapons and guerrillas.
Also today, gunmen kidnapped two members of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s family in Baghdad. His cousin, Ghazi Allawi, and the cousin’s daughter-in-law were abducted Tuesday night.
Troops from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, seized the City Hall near the city center without major resistance this morning as troops began the third day of their major offensive to take control of the insurgent stronghold, Marines said. Heavy fighting continued in some areas, including the Jolan district.
Several units encountered heavy fire from snipers and squads of guerrillas, but U.S. military leaders said that overall, resistance was lighter than expected and the advance was proceeding more quickly than anticipated.
Maj. Francis Piccoli of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force said U.S. and Iraqi forces controlled 70% of the city after cornering insurgents into a small section of Fallouja. “The heart of the city is what’s in focus now,” he was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.
At least 10 U.S. troops and two Iraqi soldiers had been killed in the operation. The U.S. gave no overall tally of civilian or insurgent casualties, but Army Lt. Col. Pete Newell, a battalion commander with the 1st Infantry Division, told CNN that his unit had killed or wounded at least 85 guerrilla fighters.
In Washington, President Bush met Wednesday with Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, to review the status of the three-day offensive.
“He said that things are going well in Fallouja, and they’re making very good progress in securing that country,” Bush told reporters following a White House meeting with NATO Secretary General Yap de Hoop Sheffer.
Bush said he was willing to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq if requested by military authorities there, but he said no such request had been made. “If the commanders were to bring forth a request, I would look at it. I would listen to it very seriously, and implement the request. They have yet to do so,” Bush said.
Elsewhere in Iraq, more than a dozen others have died in violence, including a U.S. soldier who was killed today in Tikrit. Pitched battles took place in Baghdad, in the northern city of Mosul, and in Ramadi to the south.
Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, the top operational commander in Iraq, said Tuesday that “several more days of tough urban fighting” would be needed for U.S. forces to complete their sweep through Fallouja.
Metz said militants were fighting in small squads of three to six and did not appear to have a comprehensive plan to defend the city.
“I think the enemy is fighting hard, but not to the death, and I think that they are continuing to fall back,” he said, speaking via teleconference from Iraq to reporters at the Pentagon.
Before the assault began, American officials estimated that 3,000 to 5,000 insurgents were in Fallouja. U.S. commanders were unsure Tuesday whether the lighter-than-predicted fighting was a sign that fewer were left in the city than estimated, or whether they might be retreating toward the city center to stage a coordinated defense.
Even as commanders said the Fallouja offensive was progressing according to plan, violence flared in other areas of Iraq. Two U.S. soldiers were killed in a mortar attack in the northern city of Mosul, and insurgents attacked two police stations in Baqubah, injuring eight Iraqi policemen, the military said.
And in a statement that appeared on an Islamist website, insurgent groups warned Iraqis in Baghdad and other cities to remain at home today to avoid “putting their lives in danger.”
The warning posted on the Internet was also distributed on leaflets early today in neighborhoods of Baghdad where the insurgency is active. It specifically said government workers should stay away from their offices, with the exception of those at the Health Ministry. The leaflet was signed by 10 insurgent groups, most of which had claimed responsibility for previous attacks on Iraqi government forces and Westerners.
Allawi imposed a nighttime curfew in Baghdad on Tuesday, the first in more than a year. In Fallouja, a group calling itself the Ansar Jihad threatened to behead his family members within 48 hours unless the offensive was called off, but their claims of holding the kidnapping victims have been unsubstantiated.
The offensive to retake Fallouja, which has been controlled by insurgents since April, is part of a strategy by the U.S. military and Allawi’s administration to stabilize the country and reduce violence ahead of elections for a national assembly planned Jan. 31.
In September, Metz and other senior military officials said it was possible that violence might exclude Sunni Muslim-dominated cities such as Fallouja from voting. On Tuesday, however, Metz expressed more confidence that the Fallouja offensive would enable the city of 300,000 — as well as other towns throughout restive Al Anbar province west of Baghdad — to participate in the voting.
“I think because Fallouja has been the cancer, that when the cancer is removed it will impact other places, especially Ramadi, especially Baghdad and other parts of the [Sunni] Triangle,” he said.
Meanwhile, however, an influential group of Muslim clerics called on Sunnis to boycott the vote in protest of the attack on Fallouja.
Harith Dhari, director of the Assn. of Muslim Scholars, said his group would spread the boycott message through 1,000 mosques with which it had affiliations. The election, he said, was being held “over the corpses of those killed in Fallouja and the blood of the wounded.”
The president declined to say whether Iraqi elections could be considered free and fair without the participation of Sunni Muslims, expressing hope that all groups would participate in the democratic election.
“I believe that a lot of citizens in Iraq will want to vote for their leaders,” Bush said. “And I believe that because I believe deep in everybody’s soul is a desire to be free.”
On the battlefront in northeastern Fallouja, Marines and Iraqi troops seized a mosque and a convention center after fighting through a mile of hostile urban terrain.
“It was one hell of a difficult fight,” said 1st Sgt. Jose Andrade of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, which entered Fallouja through the northeastern neighborhood of Askari. “We had to fight back fire the whole way.”
On several occasions, squads and platoons were pinned down by volleys of rocket-propelled grenades and rockets and had to take cover in houses or elsewhere.
As Charlie Company advanced, squads of guerrillas took up positions in the many houses abandoned by their residents.
Explosions rocked the city as U.S. ground and air forces — and insurgents — fired rockets and mortar and artillery rounds. Great plumes of smoke rose occasionally as U.S. forces destroyed houses filled with weapons.
Finally, troops reached the Al Hadra al Muhammadiya mosque.
“This is the nerve center of the resistance — and we’re here,” said Capt. Theodore Bethea, Charlie Company commander.
Inside, the troops found a weapons cache that included several rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, AK-47 rifles, a rifle and materials for homemade bombs.
An even larger cache of small arms and bomb-making material, including improvised blasting caps, was found across the street from the mosque in a convention center.
Marine officials said four guerrillas were killed in the attack on the mosque. There was some damage to the mosque, including broken glass and some destroyed walls. But its interior and distinctive single minaret were largely intact.
Meanwhile, Marines of Bravo Company, also with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, seized a convention center across the street from the mosque.
The two facilities were considered key gathering points for the resistance, U.S. officials said. Both facilities are also closely associated with Omar Hadid, an Iraqi insurgent leader said to be allied with Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant whose group has claimed responsibility for many bombings, shootings, and beheadings of foreigners.
Metz said Zarqawi and his key aides probably had fled before the U.S.-led forces began sealing off the city Sunday night.
As night fell Tuesday, exhausted Marines and Iraqi soldiers billeted in the mosque, while outside, Abrams tanks and troops kept guard. Volleys from machine guns and 120-millimeter guns occasionally broke through the darkness.
About 10,000 U.S. troops and at least 1,000 Iraqi soldiers are participating in the Fallouja offensive. They began to storm in from the north Monday night after a massive U.S. bombardment of the city.
Much of the city seemed abandoned Tuesday. Streets appeared deserted, except for guerrilla fighters who darted in and out of alleys and peered through windows.
The bodies of several insurgents were seen on the streets. Metz said that insurgents had suffered “significant” casualties and that “very few” civilians had been hurt or killed.
Reports of high civilian casualties were a major factor in the decision to call off a Marine invasion of Fallouja last spring after five days.
But it will clearly take a much larger effort to assert full control over Fallouja. Many of the residents have been openly supportive of the guerrillas and opposed to the U.S.-led intervention here.
U.S. officials say the invasion will be followed by a multimillion-dollar plan to help rebuild the city. People whose houses have been destroyed will be able to make claims for compensation, officials say.
But a more difficult task will be to counter the perception here that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the ouster of Saddam Hussein have led to a disenfranchisement of the minority Sunni population that has long dominated Iraq. January’s elections will probably advance the cause of the majority Shiite Muslims, who were oppressed by Hussein.
On Tuesday, Allawi’s government tried to demonstrate that it was looking beyond the current fighting and appointed a military governor for Fallouja, who was to be in charge until civil authority was in place.
But the announcement, made at a Marine base outside Fallouja, was jeered by assembled Falloujans who complained that the appointee, Maj. Gen. Abdul Qader Mohammed Jassem, lacked local ties.
Other Sunnis voiced dismay at the onslaught in Fallouja. The Iraqi Islamic Party, the only Sunni party in Allawi’s government, announced that it was withdrawing.
But Hachim Hassani, the party’s only Cabinet minister, said that rather than withdrawing himself, he planned to keep his position and form a new party because it was important for Sunnis to remain involved in the political process.
“Iraq is larger than any party,” he said. “I feel it’s a mistake to leave the government.”
He also decried the clerics’ boycott plan. “It will be a big mistake not to have the Sunnis’ participation in the election,” he said. “We would have problems for decades to come.”
McDonnell is traveling with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, in Fallouja. Rubin reported from Baghdad and Mazzetti and James Gerstenzang from Washington. Times wire services also contributed to this report.