FALLUJA, Iraq (Reuters) – U.S. troops reinforced positions around Falluja after an overnight air strike on Tuesday and sealed main roads out of the rebel-held city.
Witnesses said U.S. tanks and armored vehicles cut off the main highway to Jordan that runs just north of Falluja, as warplanes criss-crossed the skies. Troops took up positions in empty buildings on the Sunni Muslim city’s southern perimeter.
A civilian driver was shot dead near a U.S. checkpoint on the highway, witnesses said. The military said it was checking the report.
Only one road leading northwest out of the city, which lies 32 miles west of Baghdad, remained open to civilian traffic, the witnesses said.
In the overnight raid, the U.S. military said it had carried out a “precision strike” on a safe house used by followers of al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Falluja, killing one of his associates. It did not name him or give his nationality.
It was the second time in a few days the military had claimed to have eliminated a Zarqawi aide without identifying him. On Saturday it said it had captured a “senior leader” of the group in a raid in southern Falluja.
Residents said one house was destroyed and three damaged in the latest strike. Hospital officials reported no casualties.
Many families have already fled Falluja fearing a widely expected U.S. assault designed to bring the city under the interim government’s control before elections due in January.
The military said recent U.S. strikes had “severely degraded” the Zarqawi group’s capability and cited its recent declaration of loyalty to al Qaeda as a sign of weakness.
Falluja residents deny giving sanctuary to foreign militants and say civilians are the main casualties of U.S. raids.
Zarqawi’s group changed its name last week to al Qaeda Organization for Holy War in Iraq (news – web sites), saying in an Internet statement that it had united with Osama bin Laden (news – web sites)’s network.
The United States has offered a $25-million reward for the Jordanian militant’s capture or death.