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No all-out attack on Fallujah, at least for now

There will be no U.S. all-out attack on Fallujah, at least in the very near future, as focus shifts from Fallujah-Ramadi to Najaf-Kerbala and Basra regions. Yesterday, the N. Y. Times reported (datelined April 24 but published April 25) that 15,000 U.S. troops surrounded Fallujah, "preparing for an all-out attack" on the city of 300,000. Today, the story (Reuters) is that "progress has been made in peace efforts in the battered Sunni bastion of Falluja." Instead of an all-out attack, the U.S. now announces that "plans are ready for Iraqi police to join Marines in patrolling Falluja streets from Tuesday in a bid to put an Iraqi face on efforts to bring peace." Did somebody blink, or are Iraqis suddenly seeing eye-to-eye with the U.S. occupation?
Iraqi rebels are reported as "increasingly trained and armed." According to Lt. Col. Paul Kennedy, USMC: "The last two days have been the hardest two days this battalion has faced in over 30 years. Within the blink of an eye, the situation went from relatively calm to a raging storm."

According to Lt. Col. Kennedy: "The enemy did not run; they fought us like soldiers. And we destroyed the enemy like only marines can."



From the N. Y. Times, datelined April 24 but published April 25:

Marines in Falluja Face Rebels Who Are Increasingly Trained and Armed

By JOHN KIFNER

Published: April 25, 2004

FALLUJA, Iraq, April 24 When the First Marine Division trained for its return to Iraq, there were lessons in cultural sensitivity: don't wear sunglasses when talking to people, and avoid the insult of waving with the left hand. They learned Arabic phrases, and some units grew mustaches like the local men. Money was set aside to build schools, clinics other facilities. There were even thousands of Frisbees to be distributed.

"We had, literally, truckloads of money to rebuild this city," Capt. Steve Coast, a Marine civil affairs officer, said glumly the other day in a little cinder-block compound set up for meetings.

Instead the marines have been locked in one of the fiercest, and costliest, battles of the whole war. They have thrown a cordon around the city and have conducted weeks of street fighting against enemies who have stores of hidden arms and, sometimes, military sophistication.

In the last day or so, the city has been quiet. But in case the insurgents do not give up their arms, the marines are preparing for an all-out assault, probably after warning all civilians to leave the city.

In other parts of the country, too, the American military situation is also difficult, with convoys ambushed, bridges blown up, supply routes threatened and casualties mounting. A total of 109 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq so far this month.

The bitterness of the current fighting is reflected in an e-mail message that Lt. Col. Paul Kennedy of the Marines sent to the wives of men in his command after an ambush and five-hour street battle in the nearby town of Ramadi in early April that reportedly left a dozen marines from one company dead.

"The last two days have been the hardest two days this battalion has faced in over 30 years," the e-mail message said. "Within the blink of an eye, the situation went from relatively calm to a raging storm."

When the marines sped north last spring, their convoys of armored amphibious vehicles passed long lines of young men in civilian clothes, so humiliated they could not look at the Americans. Now, many of them have taken up arms.

"This is the fight we were expecting a year ago in Baghdad," said Lt. Col. Michael J. Lee, executive officer of the First Marine Regimental Combat Team, whose men have this angry Sunni Muslim city surrounded.

Marines here believe that they are facing a variety of forces: former Baath Party loyalists and former military men, foreign jihadists, thugs and excitable young people.

"I've seen the gamut," said Capt. Anthonol Neely, who commands Company L, which holds a position on the northern edge of the city and lost a marine in a firefight at the railroad station. "There are those that are skilled," he said. "You could tell they were trained. The way they used suppressing fire, they were definitely trained."

Marine officers say they have been astounded by the amount of weaponry they have seized. "This whole country is a weapons dump," said Maj. Kevin Collins, the operations officer for the First Marines. "You find it everywhere. In the middle of a field, behind the wall in a house, it's everywhere." Asked to quantify how much ammunition had been seized so far, Major Collins said, "Enough to supply a battalion of marines for a year."

Things changed here when a marine was killed in an ambush on a vehicle convoy just days after these marines took over the area from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. Then four American security contractors were killed in an ambush.

Perhaps the fiercest fighting was a five-hour battle in nearby Ramadi on April 6 that sparked Colonel Kennedy's e-mail message to the wives.

As described by Maurizio Gambarini, a photographer for the German photo agency DPA who accompanied the troops, the ambush on a Humvee patrol was a well-planned attack that began from four locations at once, and continued with insurgents firing down on the marines from rooftops.

"Yesterday, the enemy upped the ante," Colonel Kennedy wrote in the e-mail. "The enemy did not run; they fought us like soldiers. And we destroyed the enemy like only marines can."

Colonel Kennedy told the wives that "your husbands were awesome," He added: "If the enemy is foolish enough to try to take your men again they will not survive contact. We are here to win."



From Reuters (April 25, 3:45 PM ET):

Iraq City of Najaf Potentially Explosive, U.S. Says

By Michael Battye

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A potentially explosive situation is brewing in Iraq's Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, but progress has been made in peace efforts in the battered Sunni bastion of Falluja, U.S. officials said Sunday.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov paid visits to their countries' troops in Iraq at a time when some states are withdrawing soldiers from U.S.-led forces, who are suffering their bloodiest month.

The visits took place hours after coordinated suicide boat attacks on Iraq's primary oil export terminal, some six miles offshore from the southern city of Basra, in which three U.S. sailors were killed.

Officials said a major disaster was averted by U.S.-led forces in the overnight attacks, but the terminal -- which handles about 85 percent of Iraq's 1.9 million barrels per day -- would stay shut until Monday for full damage assessment.

Iraqi Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum told a news conference, however: "Exports will resume tomorrow."

Rebel Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has spearheaded an uprising against the U.S.-led occupation by his Mehdi Army militia and supporters, is holed up in Najaf -- a holy site to Iraq's Shi'ite majority -- in the south of the country.

"Weapons and explosives are being hidden in schools, mosques and holy sites (in Najaf)," Iraq's U.S. Governor Paul Bremer told Arabic television station Al Jazeera.

Bremer, whose spokesman termed the situation "potentially explosive," said Sadr's militia operating in Najaf and the nearby city of Kerbala made the situation "very difficult because these two cities are holy."

U.S. forces have vowed to kill or capture Sadr -- also wanted by an Iraqi judge in connection with the murder of another cleric -- but have been giving Iraqi mediators a chance to resolve the standoff.

"There are no time lines (for U.S. forces to enter the city) in the near term," said Brigadier General Mark Kimmit, top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.

Bremer visited Falluja, some 50 km (30 miles) west of Baghdad, Saturday and Kimmit said: "We remain committed to the political track."

U.S. Marines launched a crackdown against guerrillas in Falluja earlier this month after the killing of four American contractors and the public mutilation of their bodies. Doctors say some 600 people were killed in fierce fighting in the city.

The U.S.- led coalition agreed to extend to Tuesday a period for guerrillas to hand over heavy weapons -- a condition of an earlier deal on a cease-fire that has been broken regularly.

"But if we don't see delivery (on agreements reached with civic leaders) we will cease discussions and take up other options," Kimmit said, referring to frequent U.S. statements the Marines were poised to resume their crackdown at any time.

Plans are ready for Iraqi police to join Marines in patrolling Falluja streets from Tuesday in a bid to put an Iraqi face on efforts to bring peace.

Howard, wearing a flak jacket, flew into Baghdad's heavily guarded airport to mark Anzac Day, when Australia and New Zealand honor their war dead.

Australian television said automatic gunfire could be heard in the distance as Howard -- who, like President Bush, faces a re-election campaign this year -- attended a dawn service during his six-hour visit.

Parvanov visited Bulgarian troops in Kerbala, south of Baghdad, days after one of them was killed in a guerrilla ambush, Bulgarian state radio said.

Katyusha rockets hit two hotels, a hospital and a police vehicle maintenance department in the northern city of Mosul, killing four people and wounding 13, police said.

A U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb which ripped through his Humvee in Baghdad and at least two civilians died in shooting afterwards, officials said.

Spanish soldiers shot and killed at least two guerrillas in south-central Iraq after coming under fire Sunday, Spain's Defense Ministry said.

Spain, Honduras and the Dominican Republic have said they are withdrawing troops from Iraq.

El Salvador's President Francisco Flores said in published comments his country had yet to decide whether to keep its 380 troops in Iraq after a planned U.S. handover of power to Iraqis on June 30. Since U.S.- led forces invaded Iraq in March last year to oust Saddam Hussein, 519 U.S. servicemen and women have been killed in action -- more than a fifth of them this month.

Washington has blamed attacks on Saddam supporters, Sadr's followers and foreign Islamic militants, including Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda.

Bush has vowed the upsurge in violence will not torpedo the planned June 30 handover of power to Iraqis.