Assault on Fallujah unleashes bloody reprisals across Iraq

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The Independent Online

A day of devastating violence across Iraq, including a wave of car bombings in Samarra and heavy American air attacks in Fallujah, left at least 40 people dead yesterday and set officials of the interim Iraqi government at odds with the US over its impending offensive against the rebels.

In the wake of criticism from Kofi Annan, senior figures in Iyad Allawi's government echoed the UN Secretary-General's warning that an attack on Fallujah, expected in the next 24 hours, would only escalate the bloodshed and jeopardise the national elections, scheduled for January. The interim president, Ghazi al-Yawar, is among those who believe the result would be to trigger widespread rebellion throughout the country.

As American warplanes pounded Fallujah in the heaviest bombardment for six months, destroying a hospital, a medical warehouse and dozens of homes, a foretaste of the possible retaliation came in Samarra. In the space of three hours, a suicide car bomber rammed into a police station; three car bombs exploded elsewhere in the city and mortars were fired at three other police stations. Witnesses claimed US troops opened fire amid chaotic scenes, spraying passing cars.

Samarra, a former rebel stronghold 60 miles north of Baghdad, was recaptured by American forces last month in an operation seen as a dress rehearsal for Fallujah. The deaths yesterday in a well-coordinated series of bombings and mortar attacks showed how far the US and Iraq's interim government were from effective control of the city.

US troops were also involved in fierce fighting near Ramadi, like Fallujah a centre of Sunni insurgency, leaving 20 US marines injured. On the road to Baghdad airport, a car bomb exploded, injuring three American soldiers and killing an Iraqi civilian. The headquarters of the Polish contingent in central Iraq was mortared, and two of its helicopters came under fire.

Ominously for Washington and the Iraqi government, US soldiers came under attack in Sadr City, the vast Shia slum adjacent to Baghdad, raising the prospect of a Shia-Sunni alliance forming in retaliation for the assault on Fallujah, where 10,000 US troops are massed on the outskirts.

The US and the interim government have been attempting to reconcile Shia militants, while confronting the Sunni militants, offering an arms amnesty to the Mehdi Army, while its leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, has expressed interest in the political process.

There was increasing evidence yesterday that vast numbers of insurgents have slipped through the US net around Fallujah and regrouped to carry out attacks elsewhere. The US military, which had been saying until now that there were more than 5,000 fighters in the city yesterday, revised its estimate to 1,200. At the same time it emerged that many of the US soldiers facing them have never seen major combat. "About 95 per cent of my men have no major combat experience and many have none at all," said Sergeant Michael Edwards, a tank company master gunner. "Their performance will be based on their training, not on combat experience."

The prospect of the US assault on Fallujah has led to serious rifts within Iyad Allawi's interim government. President al-Yawar accused Mr Allawi and his US sponsors of gross over-reaction and being at fault for the collapse of negotiations. "The coalition's handling of this crisis is wrong," Mr al-Yawar said recently. "It's like someone who fired bullets at his horse's head just because a fly landed on it. The horse died and the fly went away."

In Fallujah, local people described a fireball from US air strikes lighting up the sky and shaking the city. Nazzal Emergency Hospital, funded by a Saudi Arabian charity, was badly damaged, and a nearby compound used by the main Fallujah hospital nearby to store medical supplies destroyed. The US military said the raids had been aimed at "barricaded fighting positions" and ammunition dumps. American tanks were also in action in the north-east of Fallujah, where they shelled insurgent positions.

Ahmed Rahim Mohammed, who came out of Fallujah on Friday before the city was effectively sealed by the Americans, said last night: "There are hardly any women or children left in the city now, only men. We had moved out of the outlying areas to move to the centre of Fallujah, but nowhere is safe now. There are mujaheddin in the city, and they are well armed. But it is also no secret that many of them, hundreds, maybe thousands, have escaped."

Meanwhile, fighters led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the killings of three soldiers of the Black Watch in an ambush on Thursday. The words coincided with the issuing of a statement by the family of Pte Paul Lowe, one of the Black Watch casualties. His family said: "Paul was a keen and admirable young soldier who had wanted to join the Black Watch from the age of seven years." A family friend added: "His mother, Mrs Helen Lowe, was bitterly struck by the untimely death of her son, of whom she and her brothers were immensely proud."