(WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN) AS the US reeled from the death of nine marines in Iraq at the weekend, insurgents in Fallujah claimed to have obtained chemical weapons and threatened to use them in any battle for control of the rebel stronghold.
Rebel commanders said chemicals such as cyanide had been added to mortar rounds and missiles that would be deployed against coalition troops reported to be preparing for a major assault on the town west of Baghdad.
A military committee made up of former officers in Saddam Hussein’s army, including experts on chemicals and guerrilla warfare, is said to have been organising forces in Fallujah and planning tactics.
The committee is understood to include members of all the main insurgent groups, including that of Iraq’s most wanted man, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist leader behind the beheading of several foreign hostages and a string of car-bomb attacks.
The US suffered its worst day in Iraq since May when the marines were killed as violence flared across Iraq’s rebel heartland.
bout 30 Iraqis were killed as the US troops hit back.
A marine spokesman said eight of the soldiers died in a suicide car-bomb attack near Fallujah and the other was killed in Ramadi.
Nine marines were also wounded, he said, but the US military refused to provide further details.
The deaths take the US casualty toll since the war started in March last year to at least 1120. Aid groups say up to 10,000 Iraqis have been killed.
Seven Iraqis died and 19 were wounded on Saturday when a car bomb was detonated outside the Baghdad offices of Arabic broadcaster al-Arabiya.
A group calling itself Thawrat al-Ishrin (Revolution of the 1920s Brigades) claimed responsibility for the attack on “the infidels’ television”.
“The building was destroyed on (the heads of) the spies, the Americanised journalists … the mouthpieces of the US occupation in Iraq,” it said in a statement.
The majority Saudi-owned satellite channel has often been attacked on Islamist websites for its perceived pro-Western stance in the Arab world.
Sheikh Mahdi al-Sumaidi, a Sunni cleric in Baghdad, warned the US and interim Iraqi Government against attacking Fallujah.
He said they risked incurring a fatwa, or binding religious decree, that would command Muslims to launch street protests and a campaign of civil disobedience.
But US forces continued preparations for the widely expected offensive, with jets and artillery pounding targets in the city. US military officials have claimed there are up to 5000 Islamic militants, Saddam loyalists and criminals barricaded in the town.
“We’re gearing up to do an operation and when we’re told to go, we’ll go,” said Brigadier General Dennis Hejlik, deputy commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
“When we do go, we’ll whack them.”
The US military emphasised that the final order to attack should come from Iraq’s interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who has told the people of Fallujah to hand over Zarqawi’s followers.
Peace talks to avert an assault on Fallujah, believed to have started last Wednesday, are being held by a Government-backed delegation and leaders from the rebel-held Sunni city of 200,000 people.
Dr Allawi has demanded foreign militants be expelled from Fallujah and Iraqi forces, backed by American troops, be allowed into its centre.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair will call a general election in February rather than May or later next year as had been expected, London’s Sunday Telegraph reported yesterday.
Mr Blair, who will be seeking a third term, hoped to benefit from a “Baghdad bounce”, if Iraq staged successful elections in January as scheduled, the newspaper said.
The Sunday Times