Eight US marines killed around Fallujah while airstrikes intensify

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The Independent Online

Heavy fighting has erupted around Fallujah, with eight US marines killed and nine others injured yesterday in the bloodiest attack on US forces for seven months, while inside the besieged town intensive American artillery fire and air strikes led to the deaths of half a dozen people.

Heavy fighting has erupted around Fallujah, with eight US marines killed and nine others injured yesterday in the bloodiest attack on US forces for seven months, while inside the besieged town intensive American artillery fire and air strikes led to the deaths of half a dozen people.

US military vehicles were burning on the roadside to the east of the city, and there were prolonged firefights. But it was unclear last night whether this was the start of the long-awaited offensive to storm Fallujah.

A marines spokesman said the action had seen the "most consistent and drawn-out artillery barrage in recent days". But he said this was not the beginning of the main attack on Fallujah. However, US commanders have said they may initially try to retake the rebel stronghold district by district, rather than engage in a full-frontal assault.

Militants had threatened that an attack on Fallujah would lead to retribution elsewhere, and a car bomb yesterday outside the Baghdad offices of the Dubai-based al-Arabiya television station killed seven people and injured 19. A US convoy was attacked at Hawsa, 25 miles south-west of the capital, and 11 people were killed and 15 injured after Iraqi police and National Guard opened fire. Two mortar rounds were fired at troops of the Black Watch, but there were no injuries.

The decapitated body of a man shown in a video shot in Baghdad appears to be that of missing Japanese backpacker Shosei Koda. The video showed the severed head of a Japanese-looking man which resembled photographs of Mr Koda. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's militant group, allied to al-Qa'ida, said on Tuesday it would behead the 24-year-old within 48 hours unless Japan pulled its troops out of Iraq, a demand rejected by Tokyo.

News of the US casualties came from Camp Fallujah, the main base for the military build-up outside the town. The US military said the deaths and injuries took place in Anbar province, where Fallujah and the nearby town of Ramadi are located.

Many of the insurgents from Fallujah have slipped through the American cordon around the town into Ramadi, which has seen escalating attacks on US and Iraqi government forces.

The American losses were from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, soon after its deputy commander, Brigadier General Dennis Hejlik, declared: "We're gearing up to do an operation and when we're told to go, we'll go. When we do go, we'll whack them."

There are now 40,000 US troops spread across western Iraq, backed by heavy artillery and Abrams tanks, A-10 "Warthog" gunships and warplanes armed with laser- and satellite-guided bombs. But the US military now says that Zarqawi may no longer be in Fallujah.

This makes nonsense of the demand by Iyad Allawi, Washington's client Prime Minister in Baghdad, that the people of the town must hand over the Jordanian militant leader if they want to avoid the onslaught.

But what happens in Fallujah could have a huge impact in the US and Iraqi elections. Even before the sudden reappearance of Osama bin Laden, there has been intense speculation that the Fallujah offensive would be timed to coincide with the US presidential election on Tuesday, allowing President Bush to boost his image as a war leader. But Mr Allawi also needs the publicity.

Morale among Iraqi troops and police, doing the bulk of the dying on behalf of the occupation forces, is low. The massacre of 49 army recruits led even Mr Allawi and his interim cabinet to ask why the Americans sent the men unprotected to their deaths. That was followed by a ghastly video of the murder of 11 National Guard members.

Many US soldiers believe Fallujah has become a matter of political expediency. The marines, in particular, are still bitter about last April, when, against the wishes of their commander, the highly respected Lt-Gen James Conway, the White House and the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, ordered a punitive attack on the town after the lynching there of four American security guards.

The marines were on the verge of taking Fallujah after days of bitter fighting when the order to withdraw came as polls showed Mr Bush's job approval rating had fallen to 43 per cent. Fallujah has since reinvigorated the resistance and spread rebellion across the country.

Troops want to know why theoperation has been delayed until now, when waves of car bombers have been coming into Baghdad for several months. The deployment around Fallujah only really began after bombers struck at the centre of US power in Iraq, the Green Zone in the capital, where two bombs caused huge adverse publicity for the Bush administration.

Even before the exodus, caused by US airstrikes and the prospect of an attack, Fallujah was a small town with a population of 400,000. Now it is under 50,000. The US estimate for the number of insurgents there is around 3,000.

On paper it should be an easy victory. But many insurgents have managed to slip through the net, and are believed to be reinforcing those already in Ramadi, the Iskandariyah triangle, and Baghdad.

The US estimates that there are now 20,000 militants in Iraq, but Major General Andrew Graham, the recently departed British deputy commander of coalition forces, said the figure could be as high as 50,000.

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