US forces seal off Fallujah ahead of major operation

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The Independent Online

US forces sealed off the turbulent city of Fallujah today ahead of a major operation against insurgents after the grisly slayings last week of four American security contractors.

Commanders have been vowing a massive response to pacify Fallujah, one of the most violent cities in the Sunni Triangle, the heartland of the anti-US insurgency north and west of Baghdad.

Last Wednesday residents dragged the four bodies through the streets in horrifying scenes that showed the depth of anti-US sentiment in the city.

US troops today closed off entrances to Fallujah with earth barricades ahead of the planned operation, code named "Vigilant Resolve."

Some 1,200 US Marines and two batallions of Iraqi security forces were poised to enter the city to arrest suspected insurgents, said Lt. James Vanzant, 2nd Batallion, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. He would not say when the troops would enter the city.

"The city is surrounded," Vanzant said. "It's an extended operation. We want to make a very precise approach to this... We are looking for the bad guys in town."

A witness reported that a US helicopter struck a residential area in the city today, killing five people. The bombing damaged five houses, said the witness, Mohammed Shawkat. There was no immediate US comment on the report.

A Marine officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said US forces had a list of targets for raids. He would not give details.

The California-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force assumed responsibility for Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division on March 24. The Marines said they intended to take a softer approach with Fallujah residents, hoping to win popular support.

But the Marines have quickly found themselves mired in violence. On 26 March, Marines and insurgents fought a lengthy street battle in the city that killed one Marine and five Iraqis.

The same day as the killing of the four US civilians, five Marines were killed when a bomb exploded under their vehicle in a village near Fallujah.

* Followers of the Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr today took over the offices of the governor in the southern city of Basra. At the same time, Iraq's US administrator Paul Bremer said Sadr was an 'outlaw threatening Iraq's security'.