September 28, 2004
BAGHDAD, Iraq - American forces bombed a suspected hide-out used by associates of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Fallujah on Tuesday, part of a campaign of airstrikes the U.S. military said has taken a heavy toll on the Jordanian-born militant's terror network.
Intelligence reports indicate the militants targeted shortly after 4:00 a.m. were "planning attacks using foreign suicide bombers in vehicles rigged with explosives," the military said.
It said the al-Qaida-linked group has been forced to reorganize its leadership, referring to the targets of Tuesday's U.S. action as "rising" members of al-Zarqawi's network.
Al-Zarqawi's group has claimed responsibility for scores of suicide attacks and kidnappings across the country, as well as the recent beheading of two Americans.
There was no immediate word on casualties. The military said early reports showed no civilians were in the area of the strike.
Late Monday, U.S. warplanes were spotted over the city and explosions were heard. Residents said they saw a plane firing rockets into the city, but U.S. Marine officers said only illumination rounds were fired.
Dr. Walid Thamer of the Fallujah General Hospital said at least three people were killed and nine wounded in the earlier attack. They arrived at the hospital around 1:00 a.m., he said. The conflicting accounts could not immediately be reconciled.
U.S. forces have not patrolled in Fallujah since ending a three-week siege of the city in April that left hundreds dead. Military commanders say an assault may be inevitable to restore authority there ahead of nationwide elections slated for January.
Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi warned that a "decisive military solution" could soon befall the rebel stronghold if a political one is not found.
"I think we waited more than enough for Fallujah," the Iraqi leader said in an interview aired late Monday on the Arab television network Al-Arabiya. He indicated Iraqi security forces would be used in any operation against the city.
Jordan's monarch said in an interview Tuesday that extremists were currently the best organized faction in Iraq and if elections were held in the current disorder, "the results will reflect this advantage of the extremists."
"The situation is very, very difficult and in the immediate I don't see any chance of improvement," King Abdullah II, who was paying a brief visit to France, told the daily Le Figaro.
In Baghdad, American troops and insurgents clashed Tuesday along central Haifa Street, an Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman said, and half a dozen explosions rocked the city. There was no immediate word on casualties.
Military officials from the Baghdad-based U.S. 1st Cavalry Division could not immediately be reached for comment.
Haifa Street, an insurgent stronghold, has been the scene of bloody car bomb attacks, raids and fierce firefights. Dozens of suspected insurgents have been arrested there, including Syrian, Sudanese and Egyptian nationals.
The fighting came after a roadside bomb exploded on another main Baghdad roadway early Tuesday, wounding three civilians, Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman said.
The attack on Karrada street also damaged several vehicles and shattered windows, witnesses said. The target of the attack was not immediately clear. Ambulances rushed to scene of the explosions and American troops cordoned off the area.
In the southern city of Basra, insurgents attacked a British military convoy, killing two soldiers, the Ministry of Defense in London said.
"A Land Rover was badly damaged, we believe by a rocket propelled grenade," a spokesman said on condition of anonymity. "As casualties were being extracted from the Land Rover they came under small arms fire." The soldiers' names were withheld pending family notification.
In other violence, a car bomb exploded in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, as a U.S. military convoy was passing by, damaging one American vehicle, said police Capt. Abdul-Razaq al-Duleimi. He said there were no immediate reports of any injuries.
The U.S. military had no immediate comment.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces detained the suspected leader of an insurgent cell during a raid in the northern city of Kirkuk, the military said in a statement.
Soldiers from Task Force Danger detained Hussein Salman Mohammed al-Jbouri for questioning on Monday afternoon, the statement said. No injuries were reported in the raid.
Al-Jbouri is suspected of leading a cell based in Kirkuk and nearby Hawijah that aligns itself with Ansar al-Sunna, a Sunni Muslim group that has claimed responsibility for the beheading of 12 Nepalese hostages.
Egypt's charge d'affairs in Baghdad, Farouq Mabrouk, confirmed Tuesday that one of six kidnapped Egyptian engineers working for a telecommunications company here was freed Monday. "The kidnapping was motivated by financial reasons," he said, without providing details.
The Egyptians were seized in two separate incidents last week. Four Iraqis were also captured, though one was released soon after. Egypt's semiofficial Middle East News Agency reported Monday that the other Iraqis were also freed.
The hostages are among more than 140 foreigners who have been kidnapped in Iraq - some by anti-U.S. insurgents and others by criminals seeking ransom. At least 26 have been killed.
The military has launched a sweeping crackdown against Shiite fighters loyal to renegade cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the sprawling slum - named after the cleric's late father - in an effort to dismantle his militia before elections slated for January.
Those elections are central to a U.S. exit strategy from Iraq, as is the development of a strong Iraqi National Guard that can take over security operations from American forces.