US bombers and tanks in action again as plans for first 2,000 civilians to move back into wrecked city are thrown into disarray
December 24, 2004
By Nick Wadhams and Fadil Al-Badrani in Fallujah
Fighting erupted yesterday between United States marines and insurgents in Fallujah, causing casualties on both sides and hampering efforts to return the first wave of civilians to the devastated city.
US F-18 fighter-bombers were seen striking at targets in the city's outskirts. Tank and artillery fire was also heard.
At least three US marines were killed.
The clashes broke out on the day that the first 2,000 residents displaced by last month's bloody US-led offensive to retake the rebel stronghold were supposed to return to the city. Because of the fighting, only about 200 actually made the trip.
More than 200,000 people sought shelter in nearby villages before the assault on the city and have yet to return. They have been living in tented camps or in nearby towns and villages for the past seven weeks, many with only the clothes on their backs.
Fallujah, which had a population of about 250,000 before last month's attack, has been a virtual ghost town since. The city has been left without electricity or water and many buildings, power and communication lines were destroyed.
"I don't want to stay in the city, I just want to see if my house has been damaged," said Mohammed Aboud, 45, queuing on the edge of the Sunni Muslim city. "I don't want to come back yet. I've heard it's still not secure."
The industry minister, Hajem al-Hassani, said each resident would receive $100, a heater and fuel rations on his return. More cash would be paid to property owners once the extent of the damage to their buildings was assessed.
"I want to enter Fallujah and I want to assess the damage to my house. I've heard that it was destroyed in military operations," said Laith Nawwaf, 47. "If it's destroyed then I will ask for compensation from our government."
Some reports say 70 per cent of the city has been destroyed beyond repair.
US marines said they were fingerprinting, photographing and scanning the irises of "suspicious military-age men" returning to Fallujah, to ensure fighters did not slip back in.
They were also checking identification and ration cards to ensure only those from the mainly commercial Andalus district, one of the more intact parts of the city, returned.
"This is a security measure intended to safeguard incoming citizens from any insurgents trying to re-penetrate the city," said Major Naomi Hawkins, a marines spokeswoman. "Initial reports are positive ... and everyone seems to be very co-operative."
Residents began to approach a north-eastern entry point on foot yesterday morning while crowds looked on, the marines said. Many later left to retrieve their cars when they found out they would be allowed to drive in. Witnesses said at least 100 people, who had been sheltering in the nearby village of Saqlawiya, were waiting on the north-west fringes of Fallujah to get in.
At least 20 cars had managed to return, they said, and Iraqi National Guards and US marines manning two checkpoints on the way in were issuing returnees with badges to prove, once inside, that they had been officially cleared.
Officials said the slow start was probably because people did not know they were allowed in. More were expected after weekly Muslim prayers today.
"Most of them get their information from the mosques so we think that tomorrow they'll get the word out more," said Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Hansen, the Fallujah operations officer with the Marines' 4th Civil Affairs unit.
The return of residents to the city is a key part of attempts to restore and rebuild Fallujah. But while US and Iraqi authorities organise the return, American troops have repeatedly clashed with pockets of resistance in the city.
US officials have hailed the military effort to retake the city in November as a major tactical victory. But many of the guerrillas are believed to have slipped out during the fighting and are now said to be operating across central and northern Iraq. The US FBI military began re-examining security measures at bases across Iraq yesterday in the wake of the suspected suicide attack on a canteen tent at a base near Mosul on Tuesday.
A contingent of FBI bomb technicians has been deployed to help the military investigate the attack. The Baghdad-based team will help identify the type of explosive and components used, which could provide forensic links to previous Iraq bombings.
A spokesman for the US military command in Baghdad said security measures were frequently changed as needed.
"It is a fluid situation where our security measures and plans are constantly being adapted and reworked," said Sergeant Steve Valley.
"We always have force protection keeping their eyes out," Lieutenant Colonel Paul Hastings, spokesman for Task Force Olympia, the main force that controls northern Iraq, said yesterday. "For somebody that wants to take his life, it's very difficult to stop those people."