FALLOUJA, Iraq — U.S. and Iraqi forces pressed into the heart of Fallouja today, chasing insurgents out of the city’s battered northern neighborhoods and crossing a key highway into densely packed quarters to the south.
After three days of combat in which 18 U.S. soldiers, five members of Iraqi forces and as many as 600 rebels have been killed, military officials estimated that U.S. and Iraqi forces loosely controlled about 70% of the insurgent stronghold.
They cautioned, however, that they had not conducted coordinated, house-to-house clearing operations, and commanders believe that small bands of guerrillas are operating in areas said to be in U.S. hands.
Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said the rebels were moving about haphazardly and “blind,” without communications. As troops flushed armed insurgents from their hiding places, U.S. gunships and tanks cut them down in the streets.
Elsewhere in Iraq, other militants struck back, abducting three relatives of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and killing at least 10 Iraqi policemen and seven Iraqi national guardsmen in scattered attacks. A U.S. soldier was killed in Balad, and four Turkish truckers were slain in the northern city of Mosul.
Military commanders said troops in Fallouja had discovered homes where hostage-takers had apparently held and beheaded several captives.
Maj. Gen. Abdul Qader Mohammed Jassem Mohan told reporters at a base near Fallouja that in the homes, Iraqi soldiers found black outfits and masks similar to ones that insurgents have worn in videotapes that show foreign hostages. Banners and videos that may depict some beheadings were also discovered, the official said.
There was no indication, though, that troops had found any of the foreigners still thought to be in militants’ hands, including at least one American, two French journalists and Margaret Hassan, director of CARE International’s operations in Iraq and a dual British-Iraqi citizen.
Al Jazeera television aired a videotape from a militant group that claimed to have captured 20 Iraqi national guardsmen in Fallouja. The recording showed at least a dozen men in military uniforms with their backs to the camera. There was no immediate confirmation from Iraqi officials that any troops were missing.
As for an insurgent death toll, one senior Defense official who has read classified situation reports said commanders in Iraq estimated that 500 to 600 had been killed in three days of fighting. Prior to launching the offensive, officials estimated that 3,000 to 5,000 insurgents may have been in Fallouja.
Although some units have encountered fierce resistance, commanders have indicated that the rebels have put up less of a defense than anticipated. That has fueled speculation that many rebels had fled before the invasion.
Commanders said that some fighters no doubt escaped, but they emphasized the significance of U.S. and Iraqi troops finally taking control of a city that had been a key insurgent operating base — and symbol of their strength — since U.S. Marines halted an offensive in the city in April.
“There was never any attempt to try to round up every single insurgent in Fallouja,” said the senior Defense official. “We’re taking a safe haven away from them, and that’s what’s important about this operation.”
U.S. and Iraqi forces have steadily seized key buildings. On Wednesday, U.S. forces took control of Fallouja’s Iraqi national guard headquarters. Early today, U.S. and Iraqi troops captured the Al Rawdha al Muhammadiyah mosque, one of Fallouja’s signature structures where a key insurgent spiritual leader, Abdullah Janabi, had been presiding.
U.S. military officials said the mosque was a legitimate target because it had been used by enemy fighters as a base of operations.
An attempt to take the dual-domed mosque was called off Wednesday because of heavy sniper fire. Marines approached again in darkness and blew a hole in the complex’s wall with tank fire. Iraqi police entered and cleared the building. A group of people fled and came under fire from an American AC-130 gunship; it was unknown whether Janabi was among them.
“We know we killed a whole lot of them running away toward the south,” said Lt. Brandon Turner, the platoon leader, as he stood in the carpeted main room of the grand mosque. One of the building’s two minarets was damaged earlier by a U.S. munition.
The U.S. military acknowledged dropping four bombs on another mosque, the Khulafah Rashid, saying it did so because insurgents were using the building to fire on U.S. and Iraqi troops.
After three days of combat, northern Fallouja is a landscape of blown-out buildings and charred cars. Electricity has been cut off, and tracer bullets arced across the cloudless, starry sky early today.
In light of the continued fighting in Fallouja, Allawi, the prime minister, closed Baghdad’s airport for a third day. Many roads around Fallouja and Ramadi, to the west, remained shut.
A previously unheard of group calling itself Ansar al Jihad, or Holy War Followers, claimed responsibility for kidnapping Allawi’s relatives from a Baghdad neighborhood late Tuesday. In a statement posted on the Internet, they said they would behead the three captives within 48 hours unless all detainees were released and the siege of Fallouja lifted.
In a statement, Allawi spokesman Thair Nakib said the captives included 75-year-old Ghazi Allawi, a cousin of the prime minister. Also seized were Ghazi Allawi’s wife and daughter-in-law. Ali Baqir Allawi, a distant cousin of Allawi, said Ghazi Allawi’s son escaped through the roof.
Neighbors reported that two cars of gunmen came to the household, which is somewhat isolated, bounded by railroad tracks on one side and an empty area on a second side. They fired barrages of bullets as they burst into the area.
Umar Abdul Malik, 30, owner of a nearby minimarket, said he was going out to turn on his generator when the shooting started.
“They fired a hundred or more bullets,” he said. They shot not only at the Allawi home, “but also at the houses of the neighbors, to guarantee that no one would come out and try to help the victims.”
On Wednesday, the house was surrounded by police vehicles.
Violence gripped other areas of the capital Wednesday. A car bomb exploded near an Iraqi police checkpoint near the Culture Ministry, killing at least seven officers, wire services reported.
In Mosul, authorities declared a curfew after insurgents killed four Turkish truckers early Wednesday and later clashed with U.S. troops for several hours. Armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, the rebels attacked two American convoys.
A reporter on the scene said two cars were destroyed and four people were killed. A U.S. military spokesman confirmed the attacks but said only that a foreign contractor was killed in one of them.
A spokesman for a local hospital said three Iraqi police were also killed.
In one Mosul neighborhood, insurgents boasted that they had killed an Iraqi national guardsman and showed reporters the body of a lieutenant, his head riddled with bullets.
Despite the 4 p.m. curfew, Mosul was still in chaos at dusk. There was no sign of government forces or American military; insurgents controlled the streets.
McDonnell is traveling with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment in Fallouja. Rubin reported from Baghdad and Mazzetti from Washington. Warren Vieth in Washington and special correspondent Roaa Ahmed in Mosul contributed to this report.