FALLUJAH, Iraq—A day after townspeople met U.S. demands for disarmament by turning in a pile of rusted, useless weapons, the Marines' top commander in Iraq warned Thursday that residents had "days, not weeks" left before American forces resume their offensive against insurgents in the besieged city.
U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. James Conway warned that if the Marines end their unilateral cease-fire, Fallujah's 250,000 citizens may have to evacuate to avoid a massive Marine confrontation with up to 2,000 resistance fighters.
"We will, if the situation comes to it, demand that the noncombatants leave the city so that innocent people will not be injured," said Conway, whose 30,000-strong 1st Marine Expeditionary Force took over from the Army a month ago and has been mired in the bloodiest, most intense fighting in the year-old occupation of Iraq.
The insurgents, however, may have little incentive to minimize civilian casualties and might try to provoke the Marines into killing more Iraqis in the hope that that would turn more Iraqis against the U.S.-led occupation and into the arms of the resistance.
No American forces were harmed in the latest gun battles early Wednesday, when as many as 80 insurgents mortared a Marine outpost on the city's western edge, sending gunmen in 10-man waves to attack with grenades and AK-47 rifles. The Marines called in air support and fired back with rifle fire and mortars of their own, killing 38 resistance fighters. Some insurgents survived and slipped away.
U.S. military and civilian commanders declared a cease-fire over the weekend aimed at dividing townspeople from what military intelligence sees as a "hard-core element" ruling the streets: A dangerous brew of disenchanted former Iraqi intelligence officers, disenfranchised members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and about 200 18- to 20-something fighters from neighboring Arab countries, who U.S. intelligence here has decided are fight-to-the-death anti-Americans.
According to intelligence estimates Thursday, the insurgents number no more than 2,000.
Between them and the Marines are hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who've been under curfew for weeks. Up to 75,000 fled recently in a month of clashes that caught ordinary citizens in the crossfire.
This week, to try to drive a wedge between the fighters and other Iraqis, the Marines had sought to impose some softer measures: A later curfew, to let people go to evening prayers; permission for Fallujans who fled to return home, 50 families a day; and safe haven for people to come out of their homes and bury their dead.
In exchange, the coalition told townspeople Sunday that they must turn in their heavy weapons, notably the thousands of surface-to-air missiles, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades that they dragged into their homes in the week-or-so gap between the fall of Saddam's regime a year ago and the arrival of the U.S. Army.
On Wednesday, a police officer pulled up to a base with what Conway described as a paltry array of old rusting weapons, a half-full pickup bed full of "junk that I wouldn't ask my Marines to begin to fire."
Fallujah's only weapons turnover so far included 21 rocket-propelled grenades, a dozen of them inert, as though they'd been used for training; 113 rusted mortars; seven machine guns; and what one American described as "the World War II weapon that Chewbacca uses in `Star Wars.'"
Conway said Thursday that the Marines were losing their patience.
"It's days, not weeks," he said. "The cordon cannot continue forever. If the negotiators don't deliver a peaceful scenario we're going to do what we came here to do."
The Marines came here to dole out a half-billion dollars in reconstruction and quality-of-life improvement contracts across Anbar province, the troubled Sunni Muslim region west of Baghdad, where U.S. Army forces spent nearly a year in clashes until the Marines relieved them.
Soon after Conway's combined air and infantry force arrived, Fallujah townspeople ambushed four American contract workers as they drove through town March 31, mutilating their bodies in a public spectacle, provoking U.S. calls for vengeance and the Marines to impose their cordon. Clashes spiraled for days, in the streets, along the seam between the town and Marine headquarters, and even in a mosque, killing and wounding as-yet-uncounted townspeople.
Now, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, the unit that invaded from Kuwait a year ago, is trying to create the conditions for a final confrontation.
Marine forces arrayed around Anbar province have sealed off Fallujah from new fighters or new weapons, the general said, leaving "a couple of hundred foreign fighters, the hard core" trapped inside. They've also fought along the Syrian border to snuff out any gun-smuggling routes.
U.S. military intelligence analysts here think there's a mixed bag of opposition in the streets of Fallujah, from what the Marines call "spray and pray" fighters who are willing to die attacking the Americans they consider infidels in Muslim lands to disciplined former Iraqi intelligence officers and well-trained former Iraqi soldiers, who've laid complex ambushes and attacks against the Marines.
A senior U.S. military officer, speaking on the condition that he not be identified, said American military intelligence thinks the foreign fighters slipped into the country in the vacuum of the early days of the coalition invasion, after Saddam and his regime imploded and while the United States was still devising an occupation plan.
It's thought that they came from other Muslim countries, including Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and even Pakistan and Albania.
More than 50 Marines have died in a month of gun battles, ambushes and mortar attacks on their positions.
Conway said his forces were motivated for a final confrontation with Iraqis who wouldn't surrender their weapons. In this interval, the general said, the enemy "has had time to perhaps establish his defense better, install more ambushes, some of those types of things. I think it will be costly, and the Marines understand it."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-FALLUJAH