BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. troops urged civilians to flee Falluja on Friday and launched air strikes on the rebel city ahead of an assault seen as critical to attempts to pacify Iraq before January elections.
U.S. forces sealed all roads to the city and used loudspeakers and leaflets in Arabic to tell residents they would detain any man under 45 trying to enter or leave the city.
“We are making last preparations. It will be soon. We are just awaiting orders from Prime Minister (Iyad) Allawi,” Marine Colonel Michael Shupp told Reuters near Falluja.
Many residents have already fled the Sunni Muslim city of 300,000, about 50 km (32 miles) west of Baghdad.
U.S. warplanes and artillery bombarded Falluja on Friday, residents said, and rebels fired mortars and rocket-propelled grenades at U.S. forces on the city outskirts.
There was no immediate word on casualties. Ambulances were waiting for fighting to ease before venturing on to the streets.
The U.S. military said overnight air raids had destroyed a command post, arms caches and rebel positions. Hospital workers in Falluja said the strikes had killed three people, wounded four and destroyed five houses.
The military also said two Marines were killed and four wounded in combat on Thursday in Anbar province, home to Falluja and the city of Ramadi, also expected to be part of any assault.
Allawi was meeting European Union leaders in Brussels on Friday and was expected to return to Iraq after that.
The 25-nation bloc is providing a modest 16.5 million-euro ($21-million) package to support the elections and to help a possible U.N. protection force for the polls, due on January 27.
The United States and Britain hope a successful election will help defuse the increasingly bloody insurgency that has blighted their success in toppling Saddam Hussein.
The timing may hang on the outcome of the Falluja offensive to crush Saddam loyalists and militants led by al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who have claimed responsibility for hostage beheadings and some of Iraq’s bloodiest bombings.
Friday’s warning to Falluja residents included an appeal to hand over “terrorists” to U.S. troops. Shupp said anywhere between 1,000 and 6,000 rebels were holed up in the city.
The U.S. military says the assault on Falluja will succeed where an April one failed because this time it will be ordered by an Iraqi government and Iraqi forces will be involved. In April, Iraqi units refused to fight for the U.S.-led occupation.
The April battles, which coincided with a Shi’ite revolt in the south, sparked a wave of kidnappings of foreigners aimed at driving U.S.-led forces and foreign workers from Iraq.
A Nepali cook abducted on Monday from an office in Baghdad has been freed, a Nepali Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
Captors have also released two Lebanese hostages held in Iraq for five weeks, a Lebanese Foreign Ministry source said.
The U.S. military said a roadside bomb killed an American soldier and wounded another north of Baghdad on Thursday.
Britain has now lost 70 troops in Iraq. Daily guerrilla attacks have pushed the overall U.S. death toll to 1,124.
The U.S. military said attack helicopters killed several rebels on Thursday west of Latifiya, but gave no details.
(With reporting by Michael Georgy near Falluja, Fadel al- Badrani in Falluja, Lin Noueihed in Baghdad and bureaus in London, Brussels, Beirut and Kathmandu)