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Fighting in Fallujah dwindles as U.S. troops try to wrap up offensive

FALLJUAH, Iraq—U.S. troops pursued the remaining few but tenacious rebels in Fallujah on Sunday, attempting to wrap up the military's overwhelming ground and air assault on the insurgent stronghold.

At least 38 American troops and six Iraqi soldiers have been killed in the Fallujah offensive, dubbed Operation Dawn, that began Nov. 7, the U.S. military said. Three of the American fatalities died from non-battle injuries. American troops wounded in the fighting numbered 275.

In addition, the dismembered body of a woman, perhaps a Westerner, was found in the battered city Sunday.

More than 1,200 insurgents have been killed in the fighting, U.S. commanders have said. Others apparently willing to fight to the death remained holed up in Fallujah.

A combat leader in Fallujah cautioned Sunday that defeating the insurgency would require more than retaking Fallujah.

"You don't win these kinds of fights in three months, six months or a year," said Marine Col. Craig Tucker. "Especially when you have a politically disaffected minority" of Sunni Muslims that populate Fallujah and much of central Iraq.

The troops of the 1st Infantry Division who pushed deepest in the city in the beginning of the assault were given a day to rest and fix their vehicles, many of which had gashes and burn marks from Rocket Propelled Grenades, AK-47 fire and mortar fire.

But while generals and politicians had declared victory, the mood among soldiers and Marines in Fallujah who'd seen friends killed and wounded was somber.

The men, who had moved from one bombed out building to the next, getting a few hours of sleep a night, said they were grateful for the rest. But they remained wary of insurgents.

"If they've got the will and the manpower to keep doing it, they could keep it going forever," said Sgt. Isaac Ward, 23, of Eagle River, Alaska. "It's the same basic concept as Vietnam."

In addition Sunday, U.S. and Iraqi forces were still trying to quell an upsurge of violence in other key cities.

In Mosul about 230 miles north of Baghdad, rebels killed at least six Iraqi national guard soldiers and wounded at least three other soldiers in attacks on two police stations.

Insurgents fired assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades at two contingents of American and Iraqi troops in separate incidents in Mosul, as other American and Iraqi troops searched for and detained suspected rebels elsewhere in the city, officials of the U.S.-led occupation force said Sunday.

Attacks earlier in the week, including on Mosul police stations and government buildings, prompted the dispatching of additional U.S. and Iraqi forces to the mostly Sunni Muslim city, the country's third largest.

U.S. forces fought insurgents who blew up a railroad bridge in the northern Iraq town of Baiji, saboteurs damaged four oil wells near the northern city of Kirkuk, and explosions and gunfire rattled Baghdad after nightfall, including an attack with automatic weapons by insurgents on the Polish Embassy.

In southern Fallujah, Marines found the mutilated body of a Caucasian, blond-haired woman in a street under a bloodstained cloth.

The woman was not identified. Two foreign-born women kidnapped in Iraq last month—Margaret Hassan, the 59-year-old director of CARE International in Iraq; and Teresa Borcz Khalifa, a 54-year-old longtime resident of Iraq born in Poland—remained unaccounted for on Sunday.

As the house-to-house hunt for insurgents in Fallujah continued Sunday, aid workers were desperate to reach civilian residents who had not fled the city of 250,000 to 300,000 people in advance of the much-anticipated siege.

Throughout the offensive, angry humanitarian workers and sobbing, displaced Fallujah residents have appeared on Arabic-language satellite television channels. The controversial Qatar-based channel Al Jazeera in particular has aired nonstop footage of residents pleading for food and shelter.

On Saturday, Iraqi government officials announced that it had begun transferring "significant numbers" of wounded Fallujah residents to Baghdad hospitals.

U.S. forces are using leaflets, loudspeakers and face-to-face contact to encourage residents to seek medical care, the U.S.-led occupation officials said Sunday. Fallujah's general hospital is open, stocked and staffed, while residents with injuries threatening life, limb or eyesight are sent to a nearby military hospital, officials said.

Tucker, the Marine colonel in Fallujah, said Sunday that food relief was being distributed to families in the city. Otherwise, the city might not be open to outside traffic for some time, as troops continue hunting for weapons caches and insurgents, he said.

As Spc. Fredrick Ofari spent Sunday in Fallujah cleaning his weapon and trying to clean himself with baby wipes, he reflected on the week's fighting. He said he had come to admire the rebels for their willingness to fight, despite so many casualties.

"I respect them for what they do," said Ofari, 24, originally from Ghana. "I respect them for their bravery."

He hastened to add that he planned on killing as many of them as possible.

Late Sunday night, Al Jazeera reported that a militant Islamist group had released two female relatives of interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi but kept holding a male cousin.

The group kidnapped Allawi's 75-year-old cousin Ghazi Allawi, Ghazi's wife and the couple's daughter-in-law in Baghdad the day after Allawi approved the Fallujah offensive. It had threatened to kill the captives unless the offensive was called off.

Also Sunday night, Allawi announced that Baghdad's international airport would be reopened to commercial traffic Monday. The Iraqi government had closed the airport, the only way into Iraq by air other than on military aircraft, at the outset of the Fallujah offensive.

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(Lasseter reported from Fallujah. Hannah, of the Contra Costa Times, reported from Amman, Jordan. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Hannah Allam contributed to this report from Baghdad.)

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

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