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Fighting intensifies in Fallujah

CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq—Fighting intensified in this embattled city Wednesday, Saddam Hussein's 67th birthday, as Arab rebels attacked three Marine units and U.S. forces responded with withering air assaults and a 500-pound bomb.

The Marines postponed by yet another day, at least until Friday, the launch of joint American-Iraqi security patrols intended to demonstrate that Iraqis and Americans are uniting to restore law and order in the unruly city.

At Camp Fallujah, headquarters for U.S. forces across western Iraq, Marine Col. J.T. Cunnings warned his unit during a medal award ceremony that the insurgents were getting bold.

"They're getting much more aggressive outside the camp. There's fighting going on around you all the time; there's Iraqis that sneak up there all the time," Cunnings said, ordering his men to be alert and watch one another's backs. "Guess what? It's not like in the Westerns. It's not the one you see that shoots you, it's the one you don't."

In Washington, President Bush issued a warning to the insurgents: "Our military commanders will take whatever actions necessary to secure Fallujah."

He described the city—which had a population of 250,000 before the United States laid siege to it, prompting an exodus—as having "pockets of resistance" but said "most of Fallujah is returning to normal."

Other administration and military officials, however, are growing pessimistic about the prospects of restoring order and cultivating democracy in Iraq. The security situation in the country, said one military official who recently returned from Baghdad and who asked not to be identified, "has deteriorated sharply over the last several months ... and (is) still heading south. The basic U.S. strategy of `Iraqifying' security is in huge trouble." He was referring to turning over security to Iraqis.

Three coalition soldiers—at least one of them American—died in Iraq on Wednesday. An American soldier died of his wounds from a rocket attack a day earlier in Tal Afar, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said in Baghdad. He didn't specify the others' nationalities.

Commanders in Fallujah said intelligence found no signs that the attacks in this Sunni Muslim city once loyal to Saddam were tied to the birthday of the fallen dictator, who's in U.S. custody awaiting a war crimes trial. Nor did they give guerrilla casualty figures.

One senior military official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, described the insurgents as a dangerous brew of foreign fighters, former members of Saddam's Baath Party, idle ex-Iraqi army soldiers and young Arabs fed up with the standoff with Marines hunkered down in about a fourth of the city.

Wednesday's assaults on Marine posts by AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades probably were carried out by "young hotheads getting tired and bored," he said, describing a phenomenon of "Let's go outside and shoot at the Americans."

As battles surged throughout the day, three American infantry units came under fire separately, including one battalion that had been assaulted for three straight days by insurgents in a Sunni slum.

By day, commanders at Camp Fallujah dispatched helicopter gunships and warplanes to provide cover, then fired back with laser-guided bombs as the fighters moved closer to the units. At least one 500-pound bomb was dropped, destroying a building thought to have been used by the resistance to attack. By night, AC-130 gunships fired artillery at guerrilla targets.

At one point, Marines spotted insurgents in northwest Fallujah setting up mortars in a railroad station that U.S. forces had earlier taken and then abandoned to consolidate their positions. The Marines launched a counteroffensive and drove them from the station.

The latest surge started Tuesday evening when insurgents fired five volleys of mortars into Camp Fallujah. No one was injured, but soon after Marine scout teams in a slum spotted Arabs carrying weapons from a truck to a building and called in 105 mm strikes from AC-130 warplanes.

The truck ignited and sent huge plumes of black smoke over the city. A second strike destroyed an adjacent building, setting off chain reaction explosions that provided dramatic video of what the Marines said was a minor battle.

Wednesday's firefights were more intense, lasting much of the day.

The Marines have laid siege to the city since April 11. Although $540 million in U.S. funds has been budgeted for redevelopment and democratization projects in western Iraq's al Anbar province, not a penny of it has been spent yet in the town, a senior Marine officer said, speaking on condition he not be named.

The Marines have identified only several hundred Iraqi police and paramilitary civil-defense forces who might be suitable for joint patrols. A 3,000-strong Fallujah-based combined police and civil defense force evaporated earlier this month after townspeople murdered and mutilated four American civilian security contractors March 31, triggering the Marine siege.

Commanders have, for the moment, ruled out a full-scaled assault on the town while they try to establish the joint patrols with friendly Iraqi security forces and demand that Fallujans disarm themselves of their heavy weapons. No weapons were handed over this week. In Baghdad, Kimmitt said Tuesday that the process could last six to eight weeks.

The Baghdad command said Wednesday that opponents of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr were organizing in the southern Shiite city of Najaf, which is now under the control of al Sadr's Mahdi Army militiamen. Kimmitt cited "anecdotal evidence, phone calls and such" of anti-Sadr forces clashing with Iraqi opponents.

"Muqtada's army inside Najaf has been pretty heavy-handed, brandishing weapons, terrorizing people," Kimmitt said, declining to say whether a countermovement called Thu al Foqar was making a difference. The group takes its name from the double-edged sword brandished by Grand Imam Ali, the man Shiite Muslims revere as the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad.

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(Rosenberg reports for The Miami Herald. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson contributed to this report from Baghdad, Iraq.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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