FALLUJAH, Iraq—American forces controlled most of Fallujah on Wednesday, and military officials expected the rest of the city to fall within 48 hours as troops advanced through fierce, close-quarters clashes with rebels in the Sunni Muslim stronghold.
In Baghdad, Iraq, gunmen seized three relatives of interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and threatened to kill them within two days unless the American-led assault on Fallujah stopped. The Iraqi government on Wednesday confirmed the premier's cousin, the cousin's wife and their daughter-in-law were snatched from a home in the middle-class Yarmouk neighborhood Tuesday night.
A group calling itself Ansar al Jihad claimed responsibility for the abductions in an Internet posting, which could not immediately be verified. Allawi ordered "all efforts to be made to find the kidnappers and subject them to the full force of justice," said the prime minister's spokesman, Thair al Nakib, at a U.S. military base near Fallujah. He said the kidnappings would not affect military operations in Fallujah.
Several insurgents had contacted the government in hopes of surrendering, al Nakib said. The prime minister is willing "to extend amnesty to these groups after it confirms that they committed no major crimes," he said.
In Fallujah, though, insurgents showed no sign of surrendering. Rebels attacked sporadically throughout the day, using rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and mortar strikes, said a Knight Ridder reporter embedded with the Army's 1st Infantry Division. The 1st ID troops continued to hold the eastern section of the city as U.S. Marines slowly advanced southward.
Roadside bombs set up by insurgents to hit passing American convoys sat harmless with no one to detonate them. Snipers proved the most formidable foes for American forces Wednesday. Small groups of gunmen continued to move from house to house, firing wildly at Americans from all directions.
"The biggest problem we're having is these guys keep shooting and running, shooting and running," Sgt. Brandon Bailey said.
Two rounds of U.S. air strikes Wednesday destroyed parts of a landmark Fallujah mosque, including its minaret. Military officials said insurgent fire was so heavy from the Khulafah al Rashideen mosque that air strikes were the only way to stop the attacks. The Iraqi government has promised to rebuild any mosques damaged in the battle.
Sgt. Randy Laird, who was riding in the back of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, said he had had no real sleep in days and was having a hard time keeping track of the times he had taken fire. There were reports at least two suicide bombers had been shot to death before detonating explosive belts in neighborhoods to the east.
"Somebody said the news is saying we face light pockets of resistance," Laird said. "But it hasn't been light for us."
Army Capt. Sean Sims said it appeared foreign insurgent leaders had fled the city, leaving locals to fight. That assessment was consistent with reports from rebel sources in Fallujah.
A rebel-allied cleric who gave his name as Sheik Rafaa, reached by telephone Wednesday, said rumors were swirling of shootouts between Iraqi fighters and foreign rebels who tried to flee as U.S. forces approached their posts. The Iraq-based militant group Mohammed's Army claimed it had "executed 20 Arab fighters because they left an area they promised to defend," Sheik Rafaa said.
The American foray into Fallujah also unearthed "hostage slaughterhouses, where foreign captives had been killed," said Maj. Gen. Abdul Qader Mohammed, commander of Iraqi forces in Fallujah. He said troops discovered black clothing favored by militants, dozens of CDs and records of foreign hostages.
Attacks in apparent retaliation for the Fallujah offensive continued across the northwest and central parts of the country Wednesday, with roadside bombings, car bombings and other violence that killed two American soldiers and dozens of Iraqis.
The military did not provide any new casualty figures. It said as of Monday evening, 10 U.S. troops have been killed since the beginning of the battle to reclaim Fallujah. At least two Iraqi troops have died in the Fallujah operation.
Late Wednesday night, the al-Jazeera satellite TV channel aired a video that purported to show 20 Iraqi National Guardsmen captured by rebels in Fallujah. The uniformed men stood with their backs to the camera as four masked gunmen accused them of "selling their souls to the occupation for money."
An al-Jazeera announcer said the station could not verify the authenticity of the footage. The supposed captives were not bound, blindfolded or identified, as is typical in other hostage videos.
Insurgents continued their deadly campaign against Iraqi security personnel days after prominent Sunni Muslim clerics in Iraq and Saudi Arabia deemed them legitimate targets for attack. The Iraqi government slapped a curfew on the northern Sunni-dominated cities of Baiji and Mosul after rebels killed 21 people in a wave of attacks that mainly targeted police and national guardsmen.
At least 10 Iraqis died after a car bomb detonated at a kebab stand frequented by Iraqi police in a busy shopping district of Baghdad. A Knight Ridder correspondent at the scene saw burned cars and shattered glass outside Happy Times restaurant in the Zayuna neighborhood. A cigarette vendor died at the scene; a woman and a child lay motionless on the ground.
Heavy gun battles broke out in several parts of the capital after nightfall. Police commanders had no casualty figures for the firefights, which blocked traffic and sent terrified pedestrians scrambling for cover.
Insurgents set up checkpoints 35 miles northwest of Baghdad on a main road to Fallujah, stopping cars in search of foreigners. A Knight Ridder correspondent in a white Peugeot was pulled over by masked gunmen at one of the checkpoints. He was released after showing the rebels an ID card with his birthplace marked as Fallujah.
"We were told by our superiors to cut the way and look for foreign targets," said one of the rebels, carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. "We thought you were a foreigner because you have tinted windows."
By Wednesday, large swaths of central and northwestern Iraq were under either nighttime or round-the-clock curfew as the government desperately tried to rein in violence ahead of elections scheduled for January. The Iraqi government also extended the closure of Baghdad International Airport for another 24 hours after an initial two-day halt to commercial flights.
(Allam reported from Baghdad. Lasseter is embedded with U.S. forces in Fallujah. The following Knight Ridder special correspondents contributed from Baghdad: Huda Ahmed, Yasser Salihee, Hussein Ali and Hassan Abdulrezak. An Iraqi correspondent from Fallujah is not named for security reasons.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): USIRAQ
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): fallujah