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military says 600 fighters killed in siege, but insurgency still strong

FALLUJAH, Iraq—American forces have killed about 600 insurgents in their fight to retake Fallujah, the U.S. military said Thursday as troops pushed toward the city's southern corridor, where the streets are lined with bombs and sniper hideouts.

The American military plans to have full control of Fallujah by Saturday, ending the bloody urban battle that's killed 18 American troops and wounded 178 others, officials said. However, it appeared doubtful that the offensive's goal—weakening the insurgency by wiping out its main refuge in time for January's national elections—would be achieved, as violence spread unchecked to other key cities.

"If anybody thinks that Fallujah is going to be the end of the insurgency in Iraq, that was never the objective, never our intention and even never our hope," Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday on NBC's "Today" show.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on his way to El Salvador to kick off a Latin America visit, said the Fallujah operation would end successfully, but acknowledged that some insurgents may have fled the city before the invasion.

"I have no doubt that some people did leave before it started," he said. "We also know that there are a number of hundreds that didn't and have been killed. Others have been captured."

In Baghdad, a powerful car bomb ripped through a traffic jam on a bustling commercial strip, killing at least 15 people and injuring dozens, according to police and medical workers. Many Iraqis burned to death in their cars or were crushed under rubble in the attack near major hotels housing foreign workers, witnesses said.

The blast punched a deep crater into the ground in front of Nasser Square, a busy intersection with a landmark statue of a former Iraqi prime minister. Rescue workers pulled blackened passengers from smoldering cars. Dazed, blood-spattered survivors said a gunfight had preceded the bombing.

"I saw a white, modern SUV passing very fast with a police car in front of it," Jasim Adnan said. "I heard heavy shooting, and then the explosion happened. After that, I saw only a huge fireball and thick smoke."

In other parts of the capital, gun battles between insurgents and American or Iraqi forces erupted for the third straight day. The clashes broke out in industrial areas, residential districts and the city's sparsely populated outskirts. Often they took place in broad daylight, with bullets bouncing off the cars of Iraqis heading to work or running errands.

Violence aimed at Iraq's new security forces continued, with masked gunmen storming several police stations and setting them ablaze in the restive northwest part of the country. The attacks were heaviest in Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, where insurgents roamed the streets with grenade launchers and U.S. warplanes streaked overhead.

Iraqi National Guardsmen and American troops from the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, counterattacked in southeastern and southwestern Mosul at about 1 p.m. Thursday.

U.S. military officials have said the insurgent attacks are most likely revenge for the Fallujah offensive. Iraqi forces face public condemnation and violent retaliation for their participation in the American-backed campaign. At least five Iraqi troops have died and 34 have been injured so far in the battle for Fallujah, according to the U.S. military.

Two Marine attack helicopters were forced down near Fallujah after coming under fire from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades in separate incidents, the military said. The Cobra crews escaped unharmed after emergency landings.

Soldiers handed over Fallujah's northeastern Askiri district to Marines and began plunging southward into a warrenlike area where the most hard-core insurgents are thought to be hiding. Military intelligence suggests the area is heavily mined and contains fortified insurgent dens.

Smoke still rose from the city's horizon three days into the fight. The night before, the military pummeled suspected safe houses with 500-pound bombs. The bodies of insurgents dotted driveways and gutters, yet the attacks kept coming.

"I still don't understand these people's mentality. Do they think they can really win?" 2nd Lt. Shawn Gniazdowski, 23, of Chesterland, Ohio, asked during a break in the fighting. "It's a shame to see the destruction of an entire city because of a couple thousand fighters."

"I don't think a true soldier ever really wants to go to war," added Spc. Eduardo Torres, 29, of Los Angeles, pausing to gulp water as sweat streamed down his face. "It's all death and destruction."

Troops spent the day combing houses for snipers, a leading frustration for soldiers shooting at figures that disappear into the shadows. Insurgents appeared familiar with the interconnected buildings that allowed them to dash from rooftop to rooftop, slowing the troops' advance and, occasionally, hitting their mark.

An Iraqi guerrilla captured by U.S. forces said fighters also used an extensive tunnel system to dart among safe houses, military officials said. Underscoring the enemy's slippery nature, troops launched a Javelin missile into one house that was a sniper position. They followed up with heavy machine-gun fire and stormed into the home, only to find it empty.

First Sgt. Hussein Rassim, an Iraqi soldier attached to the troops, watched his American counterparts. With a slight smile, he pointed to the back door.

It was open.

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(Lasseter reported from Fallujah, where he's embedded with the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division; Allam reported from Baghdad. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Pablo Bachelet of The Miami Herald and special correspondents Yasser Salihee, Omar Jassim, David George, Huda Ahmed and Shatha al Awsy contributed to this report.)

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): usiraq weapons

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