FALLUJAH, Iraq — Heavy fire from a U.S. aerial gunship lit up the sky Tuesday night in Fallujah, a hotbed of Sunni Muslim resistance where U.S. Marines have engaged in a two-week standoff with insurgents.
An AC-130 gunship began pounding targets in the Iraqi city shortly before 10:30 p.m. (2:30 p.m. ET), a day after a major clash between Marines and insurgents.
Columns of smoke rose from the area under bombardment, and the shells appeared to have set off at least two large secondary explosions.
Marines said the AC-130, a modified transport plane, struck the insurgents with multiple volleys from a 105 mm cannon while circling the area.
The focus appears to be two insurgent positions near Marine outposts in the city.
The strikes followed a day of relative calm in the flashpoint city west of Baghdad. Several mosques broadcast verses from the Koran during and after the bombardment.
Tuesday’s assault comes after heavy fighting rocked the city Monday, leaving one U.S.-led coalition soldier and eight Iraqi fighters dead.
Ten Marines were wounded, four of them “pretty seriously,” said Capt. Douglas Zembiec, a Marine company commander in Fallujah.
The Marines called in close air support, including helicopter gunships and fighter jets, during Monday’s battle. Tank fire destroyed the minaret of a nearby mosque, which Marines said was being used by snipers.
The 1st Marine Division said its forces returned fire after being shot at from the mosque. One attacker was killed, the other gunmen withdrew, then returned later and opened fire on the Marines again before tanks destroyed the minaret.
The Marines launched an offensive against the insurgents this month after numerous attacks on U.S. forces and others, including the killing and mutilation of four U.S. security contractors March 31.
U.S. commanders halted that offensive April 12 to let negotiators try to arrange a return to Iraqi civil control in the city.
Fighting has continued nearly every day for the past two weeks, but the Marines say they struck back only when fired upon.
Tuesday was the deadline for insurgents to turn in their heavy weapons under the terms of a cease-fire, but a senior coalition official said earlier the coalition would allow more time for the negotiations to bear fruit.
Plans to begin joint Marine-Iraqi police patrols in the city were postponed because the mechanics were not in place, the official said.
‘Dangerous situation’ in Najaf
U.S. forces have killed 64 Iraqi insurgents in fighting near the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf, a U.S. military spokesman said Tuesday.
About 2,500 U.S. troops are poised outside Najaf, where an uprising led by anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr began three weeks ago.
An Iraqi security guard examines the damage of a building Tuesday near Najaf.
A U.S. military commander said American soldiers had moved into a base camp between Najaf and Kufa but have not entered the city.
Attacks and raids have been reported throughout Iraq over the last 24 hours, including the killing of a U.S. soldier in Baghdad’s Sadr City and four people who attacked a patrol in central Iraq’s Diwaniyah, a military spokesman said.
A U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority source in Baghdad said U.S. helicopter gunships also struck positions of the cleric’s militia Monday in the Najaf area.
Top coalition officials have said that U.S. and allied forces in Iraq will not tolerate the stockpiling of weapons in mosques in Najaf, warning that action could follow if insurgents refuse to remove the weapons.
In a statement Monday, L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, said a “dangerous situation” exists in Najaf.
“Weapons are being stockpiled in mosques, shrines and schools,” Bremer said. “This explosive situation cannot be tolerated by those who seek a peaceful resolution to this crisis.”
Coalition spokesman Dan Senor said weapons must be removed from holy sites and schools immediately — and if they were not, “further steps may have to be taken.”
He said places of worship “are not protected under the Geneva Conventions in the event of military action, if they are used as bases for operations and bases to store weapons and other tools of violence.”
Al-Sadr is wanted for questioning in the killing of a rival cleric last year.
U.S. officials have said they want to capture or kill him, but there have been ongoing talks to defuse the possibility of fighting between U.S. troops and al-Sadr’s militia in Najaf.
The Halliburton Co. and its subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown & Root, confirmed Tuesday the death of an employee who has been missing since an April 9 convoy ambush outside of Baghdad. The victim was identified as Tony Johnson, 47, of Riverside, California. Johnson was a volunteer worker, Halliburton spokeswoman Wendy Hall said. Thomas Hamill of Macon, Mississippi, and two other unidentified KBR employees remain missing since the attack.
Members of the International Committee of the Red Cross visited former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein on Tuesday at an undisclosed location, according to a U.S. Army spokesman. Saddam has been in coalition custody since he was captured December 13. The last visit to Saddam from the Red Cross, which monitors conditions of prisoners of war, was in February.
With the Pentagon rushing to increase the number of armored Humvees in Iraq, the head of the U.S. Army Forces Command complains the reinforced vehicles don’t provide adequate protection for troops, according to a memo obtained by CNN. In a March 30 memo to the Army chief of staff, Gen. Larry Ellis called for doubling this year’s order for the new Stryker armored vehicle and rushing them to Iraq. “It is imperative that the Army accelerates the production of Stryker vehicles to support current operations,” Ellis wrote.