FALLUJAH, Iraq — U.S. and Iraqi forces on Thursday launched a second phase of the operation to retake Fallujah, storming the southern half of the city in an attempt to isolate Sunni fighters in a confined area.
Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, commander of the 1st Marine Division, said U.S. forces were moving house to house in the rebellious Iraqi city, looking for insurgents and weapons. Ground forces were being backed by an air and artillery barrage aimed at breaking the insurgency.
Natonski announced that 18 U.S. servicemen were killed and 69 wounded in action since the start of the Fallujah offensive. Five Iraqi soldiers were killed and 34 wounded in action in the same time period. The military estimated 600 insurgents have been killed in the offensive.
The Fallujah campaign has also sent a stream of American wounded to the military’s main hospital in Europe. Planes carrying just over 100 injured troops were arriving Thursday at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, a day after 64 others were brought in.
The large number of wounded sent to Germany suggests that fighting may be more intense, at least in some areas, than the military had initially indicated.
U.S. troops discovered an Iraqi man chained to a wall in a building in northeastern Fallujah, the military said Thursday. The man, who was shackled at the ankles and wrists, bruised and starving, told Marines he was a taxi driver abducted 10 days ago and that his captors had beat him with cables.
In the northern half of Fallujah, an Iraqi commander reported the discovery of “hostage slaughterhouses” in which foreign captives had been killed. Documents of hostages were found, along with CDs showing beheadings and the black clothes of kidnappers, he said.
Since Monday, U.S. and Iraqi troops have been fighting their way through the northern half of Fallujah, reaching the east-west highway that bisects the city and battling pockets of fighters trapped in the north while other insurgents fell back into the south.
After air and artillery barrages pummeled the southern districts through the day, U.S. soldiers and Marines after sunset launched their main assault across the central highway into the southern half, the military said.
Two Marine Super Cobra attack helicopters were hit by ground fire and forced to land in separate incidents near Fallujah, the military said Thursday. The crews were not injured and were rescued.
Sunni fighters in the city appear to be trying desperately to break open an escape route through the U.S.-Iraqi cordon closing off the city’s southern edge, commanders said. Insurgent mortar fire and attacks have focused on bridges and roads out of the city more than on U.S. troops descending from the north, they said.
Commanders say that since the offensive began, their seal around the city is tight and that fighters still inside have little chance of escape. Some 15,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops are involved in the cordon and the assault inside the city.
Military officials cautioned that the figure of 600 insurgents killed in Fallujah was only a rough estimate. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, said Thursday that “hundreds and hundreds of insurgents” have been killed and captured.
Commanders had said before the offensive began that 1,200 to 3,000 fighters were believed holed up in the city. But the speed of the U.S. advance has led some officers on the ground to conclude that many guerrillas abandoned the city before the attack so they could fight elsewhere.
The number of civilian casualties in the city is not known. Most of the city’s 200,000-300,000 residents are thought to have fled before the offensive. The rest have been hunkered down in their homes without electricity during days of heavy barrages, with food supplies reported low.
Gen. Myers, speaking on NBC’s “Today” show, called the offensive “very, very successful.”
But he acknowledged that guerrillas will move their fight elsewhere. “If anybody thinks that Fallujah is going to be the end of the insurgency in Iraq, that was never the objective, never our intention, and even never our hope.”
“There has always been pockets of resistance in this type of fighting, just like there was in World War II — we would claim an island is secure and fight them for months after that,” Marine Capt. John Griffin said in Fallujah. “Claiming the city is secure doesn’t actually mean that all the resistance is gone, it just means that we have secured the area and have control.”
In what could be a sign of progress, the Marines began turning over the northern neighborhood of Jolan to Iraqi forces, signaling that they consider the area relatively secure. Jolan, a dense, historic district of tight alleyways, was considered one of the strongest insurgent positions.
The assault into southern Fallujah follows a day of sometimes fierce firefights as troops tried to clear bands of gunmen in the north.
In one of the most dramatic clashes Wednesday, snipers fired on U.S. and Iraqi troops from the minarets of the Khulafah al-Rashid mosque, the military said. U.S. Marines called in an airstrike, and an F-18 dropped a 500-pound bomb on the mosque, destroying both minarets. Insurgents in streets around the mosque kept up the fight, pinning troops down on a rooftop.
U.S. troops skirmished Wednesday night in the Wihdah and Muhandiseen neighborhoods, according to Iraqi journalist Abdul Qader Saadi, who said he saw burnt armored vehicles and tanks and bodies in the streets.
Meanwhile, rebels have continued heavy attacks elsewhere in a campaign of violence meant to divert troops from Fallujah and show they can keep up the fight even if their strongest bastion falls.
Fighting Escalates in Mosul
Violence escalated dramatically in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul amid a campaign by guerrillas this week to step up attacks elsewhere to divert troops from Fallujah.
Guerrillas attacked police stations in Mosul, overwhelming several, and U.S. and Iraqi troops were trying to put them down, the military said. The city governor was looking to neighboring provinces for police reinforcements, as gunfire and explosions echoed across the city.
Residents said masked gunmen were roaming the streets, setting police cars ablaze and holding some of the city’s bridges — despite a government announcement a day earlier that Iraqi forces would seal the bridges and enforce a curfew in the city, one of Iraq’s largest.
Guerrillas overwhelmed several police stations, prompting “offensive operations” by U.S. and Iraqi troops in response, the U.S. military said. There was no immediate word on casualties.