An airborne assault on a mosque killed 'at least 40 worshippers' attending prayers in the city of Fallujah yesterday as US-led occupation forces lost control of large parts of Iraq.
American attack helicopters and fighter aircraft supported marines as they stormed Fallujah 30 miles west of the capital. The aircraft fired a rocket and a bomb into the compound of the Abdul-Aziz al-Samarrai mosque.
Witnesses said the attack came as worshippers gathered for afternoon prayers and that at least 40 worshippers had been killed. Improvised hospitals were set up in private homes to treat the wounded and prepare the dead for burial.
The US military gave varying casualty counts. Marines Capt Bruce Frame, in a statement issued from Central Command, said: "One anti-coalition force member was killed in the attack. There is no report of civilian casualties."
Meanwhile Brig Gen Mark Kimmitt, the chief US military spokesman in Iraq, said, "I understand there was a large casualty toll taken by the enemy."
US Marines on the roads leading in and out of Fallujah were turning back all vehicles yesterday including ambulances. Anyone trying to reach the city, which has a population of 300,000, was barred from entering. Two Iraqis, sitting half-hidden close to a US roadblock near the village of Haswa, said: "You can't reach the city. The Americans have closed it off. Don't let them see you talking to us or we will be arrested."
Overall civilian casualties in Fallujah are not known but 16 children and eight women were reported to have been killed when US aircraft hit four houses on Tuesday, according to Hatem Samir, an official at Fallujah hospital.
The US and its allies are now engaged in a two-front war with the Sunni Muslim militants in Fallujah and Ramadi, as well as the Shia in the south.
Although US soldiers said they had reached the centre of Fallujah, most of the city still appeared to be under the control of guerrillas.
By last night, the troops which overthrew Saddam Hussein a year ago this week, had been driven from five Iraqi cities after heavy fighting. Allied forces were under attack at both ends of the country.
Abu Hussam, an elderly man in Haswa just east of Fallujah, said: "We were pleased when the Americans overthrew Saddam's miserable regime but today our lives are worse than they were when he ruled in Baghdad." He said he hoped the insurgents would win.
This week has seen the heaviest fighting since the end of the war, with the US losing 33 soldiers in three days.
At least 150 Iraqis have died west of Baghdad alone, not counting those who died at the mosque yesterday.
Large parts of southern Iraq have slipped out of their control as Allied forces come under attack from militiamen of the Army of the Mehdi which is loyal to Muqtada Sadr, a firebrand Shia cleric whom the US says it intends to arrest.
The worsening situation on the ground appears to be affecting public opinion in America, where polls demonstrate an erosion in support for the decision to invade in Iraq.
In the city of Kut on the Tigris river south of Baghdad, the Army of the Mehdi appeared to be in control after gun battles forced Ukrainian soldiers stationed there to leave. A Ukrainian soldier and a British citizen working for a security company were reported killed as well as 12 Iraqis. Muqtada Sadr has taken refuge in the Shia holy city of Najaf which is now under the control of his men. It is the home city of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shia cleric, but he does not have his own militia. Sadr's men have also taken Kufa, south of Najaf.
US military commanders declared yesterday that they would arrest Sadr and destroy the Army of the Mehdi, the black-clad militiamen who support him. But it is doubtful if the US has the military forces in Iraq, numbering some 130,000 men, to do so. They would have to call in reinforcements and even that might not be enough.
The US army was already having difficulty in coping with the Sunni guerrillas north and west of Baghdad. Many of the Allied troops in the Shia cities of the south are from countries such as Poland, Spain, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Italy, which wanted to show their loyalty to the US but did not expect to find themselves in serious fighting.
The confrontation with Sadr appears to have been provoked by Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, when he closed Sadr's newspaper and arrested one of his aides. He may not have expected such a violent response. Although Sadr controls three cities in the south, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the US military deputy commander, said: "If he wants to calm the situation, he can turn himself in to an Iraqi police station and face justice."
Iraq's top Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani yesterday condemned the way the Allies were "dealing with current events" and said "provocative steps which will lead to more chaos and bloodshed" should be avoided.
A dangerous ingredient in the present crisis is that it is taking place during a Shia festival, known as Arbain, the 40th day of mourning after the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein.