December 23, 2004
FALLUJAH, Iraq - U.S. Marines battled insurgents in Fallujah on Thursday, with warplanes dropping bombs and tanks shelling suspected guerrilla positions in the heaviest fighting in weeks, erupting as the first residents returned to the devastated city.
At least three Marines were killed in the area, the military said.
The fighting was the heaviest in Fallujah since Dec. 10, when seven Marines, three Iraqi troops and about 50 insurgents were killed. The former insurgent stronghold has seen sporadic violence, including artillery and small-arms fire, since the United States captured it in a weeklong offensive last month.
F-18 fighter-bombers were seen striking at targets in the city's outskirts. Tank and artillery fire was also heard.
U.S. officials said Marines and insurgents were killed in the Fallujah fighting. A military spokeswoman said three Marines were killed in action Thursday in Anbar province, which surrounds Fallujah.
American commanders have hailed the November offensive to retake Fallujah as a major tactical victory. But pockets of insurgents remain in the city - and violence elsewhere in Iraq has only escalated since the capture of Fallujah, after many guerrillas apparently slipped out of Fallujah to operate in central and northern Iraq.
U.S. forces suffered the deadliest attack on one of their bases, when a blast Tuesday ripped through a dining tent at a base near Mosul, killing 22 people - mostly Americans. The military was reassessing security measures at bases across Iraq after it was determined that a suicide bomber carried out the attack after successfully infiltrating the base, officials said.
A U.S. soldier was also killed Thursday by a roadside bomb in Baghdad, the military said. The deaths raised the number of U.S. troops who have died since the start of the war in March 2003 to at least 1,325, according to an unofficial count by The Associated Press.
The new Fallujah fighting came as the first group of returning residents lined up at checkpoints into the city, brandishing documents to prove to Iraqi policemen that they had the right to enter. Once in the city, returnees visited the remains of bombed-out and looted homes they fled - along with most of Fallujah's population of approximately 250,000 people.
"This is all that's left of my property," one man said, waving a dusty blanket. In footage by Associated Press Television News, the corpse of an elderly woman was visible in one destroyed house, lying face down in her black robe. It was not clear how long ago she was killed.
The return of the tens of thousands of residents who have been crowded into camps or living with relatives in Baghdad and elsewhere is a key part of attempts to restore and rebuild Fallujah, particularly with Jan. 30 elections approaching. U.S. and Iraqi officials have been organizing a stage-by-stage return to prevent a flood of people - while at the same time dealing with the persistent clashes with insurgents still in the city.
Authorities had planned on Thursday to allow the return of 2,000 residents, all from a small Fallujah neighborhood called Andalus, a generally commercial district. By the afternoon, only about 200 actually made the trip, some on foot, according to U.S. officials.
Lt. Col. Kevin Hansen, the Fallujah operations officer with the Marines' 4th Civil Affairs unit, said residents may not be aware of the return, and that more may come on Friday after announcements during weekly prayers at mosques.
"Most of them get their information from the mosques so we think that tomorrow they'll get the word out more," he said.
In Mosul, Tuesday's suicide bombing raised questions about how the attacker infiltrated the compound, which is surrounded by blast walls and barbed wire and watched by U.S. troops who search every person going in and check his identity.
A contingent of FBI bomb technicians has been deployed to help the military investigate the bombing, said an FBI official on condition of anonymity. The Baghdad-based FBI team will help identify the type of explosive and components used, which could provide forensic links to previous Iraq bombings.
The apparent sophistication of the bombing indicated the attacker probably had inside knowledge of the base's layout and the soldiers' schedule. The blast came at lunchtime.
"We always have force protection keeping their eyes out," Lt. Col. Paul Hastings, spokesman for Task Force Olympia, the main force that controls northern Iraq, said Thursday. "For somebody that wants to take his life and kill himself, its very difficult to stop those people."
Asked how will they act following the attack, Hastings said that now that the cause of the attack is known, "a full investigation is now ongoing and from that full investigation we will act according."
Jeremy Redmon, a reporter from the Richmond Times-Dispatch embedded with troops at the Mosul base, said Iraqi civilians working on the base show identification to get in to the base, but once inside move with relative freedom.
At the targeted dining hall "there was no security that I saw," Redmon told CNN. He said that during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan - in October and November, when authorities had increased concern of attacks - civilians were screened as they entered "but that stopped after Ramadan."
Early Thursday, hundreds of U.S. troops, Iraqi National Guards and Kurdish militiamen were seen in the streets of Mosul moving around in Bradley Fighting vehicles. In some eastern neighborhoods they searched homes for weapons. One of the city's five bridges over the Tigris River reopened Thursday, after all were blocked off by U.S. troops a day earlier.
Schools remained closed but more people were seen in the streets compared with the previous day. Iraqi National Guards manned a checkpoint near another U.S. base, the former palace of Saddam Hussein, stopping passing cars and searching them.
Residents said they were worried about the worsening situation in their city, which has seen a sharp upsurge of rebel activity in the past several months.
"We see things going from bad to worse every day. All we need is security and peace but I do not see this happening," said Abbas Hussein, 32, a carpenter. "I hope there will be a divine miracle so that the situation becomes stable."
A radical Sunni Muslim group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, said it carried out the suicide bombing at the base.
In the immediate aftermath of Saddam Hussein's ouster in April 2003, U.S. commanders cited Mosul - with a population of 1.2 million some 225 miles miles northwest of Baghdad - as a success story. But armed opposition has mounted, especially since last month's assault on Fallujah.