US forces pounded suspected rebel targets around Iraq’s flash-point city of Fallujah on Saturday after a heavy night of air raids and a foray by Marines into its outskirts, an Agence France-Presse reporter said.
Artillery fire erupted in the area at about 11 a.m. (4 a.m. in Manila), said the AFP correspondent who is embedded with the US Marines.
That followed four US air strikes in 24 hours on Fallujah and its sister city of Ramadi, from early Friday coupled with more artillery fire during the night.
They “destroyed three barricaded fighting positions, an antiaircraft weapon and a weapons cache,” the military said in a statement.
A US tank scouting mission also ventured to the outskirts of Fallujah, 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Baghdad, to gauge the response from rebel fighters inside, a Marine officer said.
Several thousand US troops have massed around the Sunni Muslim bastion since mid-October, and the US military is doubling its manpower in Ramadi to 2,000 amid expectations of a two-pronged showdown to crush Iraq’s rebel nerve centers.
Military officials believe that some 2,000 to 2,500 armed fighters are holed up in Fallujah with another 10,000 men who might or might not fight.
Many of Fallujah’s 300,000 inhabitants have already fled to makeshift camps to the west or sought refuge in Baghdad, and US planes have been dropping leaflets urging those remaining to leave.
The military also announced by loudspeaker on Friday that anyone caught in the city under the age of 45 would be arrested.
By Saturday, US troops had blocked all routes into the city, only permitting families to leave, residents said.
Residents, contacted by telephone, said clashes erupted in the southeast of the city until dawn and small arms fire crackled in the northeast.
A city leader, Sheik Khaled Hammud, launched an appeal for emergency aid for some 12,000 people camped in an area called Habbaniyah, to the west of Fallujah.
“We need tents, medical aid, two ambulances, mattresses, food rations, water pumps and drinking water,” he wrote in a letter to the Committee of Muslim Scholars, an influential religious group.
A delegation of four members of the interim parliament has tried to find a peaceful solution to the crisis by talking to leaders from Fallujah, but hopes are fading fast.
“The encircling of the city has increased. Things are getting worse,” said one member of the negotiating team from the National Council.
Despite the desperate need for talks, the Fallujah officials, who first went to Baghdad on October 27 in the latest round of discussions, had not been in touch for three days, the mediator said.
“We are trying to get in touch. We’ll try again,” he told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Earlier discussions between Baghdad and Fallujah delegates collapsed in mid-October after Allawi threatened them with invasion if they did not surrender Iraq’s most wanted man, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and other suspected al-Qaeda-linked militants believed to use the city as an operating base.
City leaders insist that the Jordanian-born Zarqawi, wanted for a string of deadly attacks and beheading of hostages, does not live there.
In a sign of an intensified effort to crush pockets of resistance ahead of national elections promised by January, US Marines south of Baghdad, with help from Iraq’s fledgling security forces, captured 41 suspected insurgents in a series of raids.
The Friday raids took place in northern Babil, which spans Mahmudiyah, Latifiyah and Iskandariyah—the “triangle of death”—and is believed to have strong ties to Fallujah and Ramadi to the west.
A British battle group arrived in the region late last month from the relative calm of southern Iraq to free up US troops for the expected Fallujah assault.