Prague, 8 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Patrols of U.S. troops -- backed by tanks and close air support -- were battling insurgents on two sides of Al-Fallujah today as a main concentration of U.S. and allied Iraqi soldiers remained poised for an expected ground assault on the city.
As the U.S. troops advanced around the fringes, correspondents reported seeing insurgents fire mortars, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and heavy machine guns. Correspondents say the insurgent fire was being answered by fierce U.S. artillery barrages and raids by U.S. fighter jets called in by controllers on the ground.
In Baghdad, Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi confirmed today that he has given U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies the go-ahead to conduct major offensive operations in Al-Fallujah.
"I have given my authority to the multinational forces. I have given my authority to the Iraqi forces to spearhead the multinational forces' [operation.] We are determined to clean Fallujah from terrorists. The curfew [declared yesterday as part of a general state of emergency] is intended to protect whoever remained of the Fallujah people -- the decent people of Fallujah," Allawi said.
"Bear in mind that the preparatory phase could last any number of days, or indeed, it could last a matter of weeks."
Some 10,000 U.S. soldiers and a smaller number of allied Iraqi special forces are now dug into siege positions around the city.
Ian Kemp, editor of the London-based military journal "Jane's Defense Weekly," told RFE/RL today that the preparatory phase of a major military is clearly under way. "Bear in mind that the preparatory phase could last any number of days, or indeed, it could last a matter of weeks. The longer the city is sealed off with the insurgents inside, the more difficult it is going to be for them. Eventually, their supplies of food and water are going to dwindle. Their supplies of ammunition are slowly going to be eroded," Kemp said.
With nothing to be gained for the U.S.-led coalition by rushing through the preparatory phase, Kemp said he expects the artillery barrages, air strikes, and armored patrols to continue for some time. "They are not going to move into the city itself until the feel they are going to achieve a tactical advantage on the ground," he said. "Moving into an urban operation -- moving into an urban scenario -- is certainly one of the most difficult forms of warfare. So, certainly, U.S. commanders are not going to move until they feel they are fully prepared and they've done as much damage to the insurgents as is possible by the air strikes, the artillery fire, and patrols into the [fringes of the] city."
U.S. and Iraqi forces captured one objective overnight: Al-Fallujah's main hospital. A television crew filmed the operation as Iraqi special forces stormed the compound.
Allawi said today that four foreign terrorists were captured at the hospital and that 38 other militants were killed.
Pentagon officials say control of the hospital will prevent insurgents from using the facility to disseminate inflated reports about civilian casualties. Last spring, a U.S. offensive was called off before a ground assault was launched after reports from the hospital said some 500 Iraqi civilians had been killed by artillery and air strikes. Washington insists those reports were part of an insurgent propaganda campaign.
There are two stated military objectives of the current operation at Al-Fallujah. One is to allow Iraq's interim government to exert control over the city so that residents can take part in national elections in January. The second is to defeat as many insurgents -- either by killing or capturing them -- as possible.
The senior U.S. Marine commander in charge of operations at Al-Fallujah, Lieutenant General John Sattler, has been giving pep talks since yesterday to both U.S. and Iraqi troops involved in the operation. Today, he spoke with a group of Iraqi special forces that have been training beside the U.S. Marines. "You have displayed your warrior spirit as we have trained together," he said. "And now, we will take all of our spirit into the fight to give Fallujah back to the people of Fallujah."
Other U.S. commanders have been telling troops that an assault on Al-Fallujah could break the will of insurgents across the country. But Kemp said he doesn't think that will be the case.
"Anyone who is hoping that the operation around Fallujah is going to be the final battle is very sadly mistaken because the insurgency is taking place throughout the country. For instance, the [British] soldiers in the Black Watch battle group who were killed last Thursday [4 November] had nothing to do with the insurgents in Fallujah. The various attacks on the Iraqi security services in recent weeks, the attacks by insurgents in the Polish-led sector and the British-led sector -- none of this has anything to do with the insurgents who are actually encircled inside Fallujah," Kemp said.
Pentagon officials say anywhere from 1,000 to 6,000 fighters are trapped in Al-Fallujah. They say those fighters include supporters of former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein as well as foreign Islamic militants led by the Jordanian militant Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi.[For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".]