A hollow victory

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The Independent Online

The US and Iraqi authorities announced that Fallujah had been pacified yesterday, saying they had smashed through the last lines of resistance and killed more than 1,200 fighters.

The US and Iraqi authorities announced that Fallujah had been pacified yesterday, saying they had smashed through the last lines of resistance and killed more than 1,200 fighters.

Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, said allied forces had "completed the move, for all practical purposes, from the north of the town to the south". Iraq's interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, said there had been "a clear-cut win over the insurgents and the terrorists".

But the pacification of the rebel stronghold could be a hollow victory. The Americans will leave behind them a shattered city, having unleashed the full might of the US military against an estimated 6,000 insurgents.

There was plenty of evidence across Iraq that the war is far from over, and the devastation of Fallujah is likely to have fuelled the resistance.

American and Iraqi forces were still "mopping up" pockets of resistance yesterday and conducting house-to-house searches. A US commander recognised that the city had been "occupied but not subdued".

The US military also acknowledged that the Jordanian militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other prominent members of the insurgency had escaped from Fallujah. Mr Allawi said: "Fallujah is no longer a safe haven for terrorists" but he admitted that it would take "some days" to clear the remaining nests of resistance.

The six-day air and ground offensive left 38 Americans and six Iraqi government soldiers dead, according to the US military. More than 200 US soldiers were wounded. Two hundred of the insurgents who were killed were foreigners, the Americans said.

After failing in April to wrest Fallujah from the insurgents in a three-week assault, this time the American military expressed pride in the speed of the operation, which deployed six times the number of troops dispatched to the city seven months ago.

But the number of Iraqi civilians killed or wounded in the fighting was not mentioned. Mr Allawi said on Saturday that no civilian casualties had been reported.

Mr Rumsfeld confidently asserted last week that civilians had been given guidance on how to avoid getting injured. He predicted that there would not be large numbers of civilians killed, and "certainly not by US forces".

Up to half of the city's 300,000 resi-dents had fled before or during the military operation aimed at pacifying the city to enable elections to be held in January. But thousands remained trapped. Yesterday charred bodies were scattered in the streets, where rows of buildings lay in ruins.

People in the city said they had no water and no food, and aid agencies warned that Fallujah and surrounding areas were facing a humanitarian catastrophe. There have been outbreaks of typhoid and other diseases. Some people leaving the city told of rotting corpses being piled up and thousands of people trapped, many of them wounded without access to medical aid.

An aid convoy was held up at the city's main hospital in the western outskirts. Captain Adam Collier of the US Army cited security reasons as he explained that the seven trucks and ambulances sent by the Iraqi Red Crescent to Fallujah with medicine, food, blankets and water purification tablets would not be allowed through. US Marines Colonel Mike Shupp said: "There is no need to bring supplies in because we have supplies of our own for the people. Now the bridge is open, I will bring out casualties and all aid work can be done here."

Battles raged across Iraq yesterday. American helicopter gunships attacked Baiji in the north, and tanks moved into the centre of the city. In the northern city of Mosul, US and Iraqi security forces struggled to retake a police station that had been overrun by insurgents. They said the local security forces had lost control of much of Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city with an estimated population of 1.8 million Arabs, Kurds, Turkomen and Assyrian Christians. Also in the Kurdish-dominated region, gunmen ambushed and killed a senior official of the Iraqi Communist Party and member of the national assembly, Waddah Hassan Abdel Amir, on the road to Arbil. There were further gun attacks in Baghdad.

There was also an ominous political unravelling as a direct consequence of the Fallujah operation. A senior aide to Muqtada Sadr, the Shia cleric who has led two uprisings against the Americans, said he would not take part in the elections while "Iraqi cities are under attack".

Meanwhile an Islamist group has freed two women related to Mr Allawi but is still holding his male cousin hostage, two Arab satellite channels said yesterday. A previously unknown group seized the interim Prime Minister's 75-year-old cousin Ghazi Allawi along with Mr Ghazi's wife and their daughter-in-law in Baghdad last Tuesday.

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