It looks like things are getting under way in the pacification (read brutal beatdown) of the Islamist holdouts in Fallujah.
U.S. forces stormed into the western outskirts of Fallujah early Monday, seizing the main city hospital and securing two key bridges over the Euphrates river in what appeared to be the first stage of the long-expected assault on the insurgent stronghold.
An AC-130 gunship raked the city with 40 mm cannon fire as explosions from U.S. artillery lit up the night sky. Intermittent artillery fire blasted southern neighborhoods of Fallujah, and orange fireballs from high explosive airbursts could be seen above the rooftops.
U.S. officials said the toughest fight was yet to come â€” when American forces enter the main part of the city on the east bank of the river, including the Jolan neighborhood where insurgent defenses are believed the strongest.
The initial attacks on Fallujah began just hours after the Iraqi government declared 60 days of emergency rule throughout most of the country as militants dramatically escalated attacks, killing at least 30 people, including two Americans.
Several hundred Iraqi troops were sent into Fallujah’s main hospital after U.S. forces sealed off the area. The troops detained about 50 men of military age inside the hospital, but about half were later released.
This is just the prelude to what may well end up being a drawn-out, bloody drama, as urban warfare so often is. It should be made clear, however, that we’re most definitely not rolling into the outskirts of Stalingrad. This is Fallujah, where an ascending Iraqi national army will be assisted by the most professional, best equipped and truly lethal military force the world has known — the American military. Arrayed against them: terrorists and fanatics, outcasts and criminals, armed with RPGs, booby traps, mines, car bombs, mortars and rifles, employing tactics that have already repeatedly failed them.
The terrorists are desperate, knowing the loss of Fallujah would be a savage blow to their efforts and a tremendous boost to the interim Iraqi government. They also have little hope of a second intervention by the Iraqi government to avert a crushing of Fallujah, as no good came from the previous act of mercy. Their two hopes are contradictory in nature — inflict as much of a bloodletting as possible in hopes of blunting coalition will, or bug out with as much of the leadership intact as possible and strength as can be salvaged.
To counter this, the Americans are entering the combat with several key advantages, including airpower, intelligence, night-time capabilities, firepower and training. Add to this list the intangibles of optimism and motivation.
As U.S. forces prepared for what is expected to be the biggest Marine-led urban assault since Vietnam, U.S. commanders pumped up troop spirits Sunday, saying they were no different from the storied heroes of Iwo Jima and Korea.
Standing before some 2,500 Marines who stood or kneeled at his feet, Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, the commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, told them that they would be at the front of the charge.
“This is America’s fight,” Sattler said. “What we’ve added to it is our Iraqi partners. They want to go in and liberate Fallujah. They feel this town’s being held hostage by mugs, thugs, murderers and terrorists.”
Two Marine battalions, along with a battalion from the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, will be the lead units sent into a Fallujah attack. They will be joined by two brigades of Iraqi troops.
Sgt. Maj. Carlton W. Kent, the top enlisted Marine in Iraq, told troops Sunday the coming battle of Fallujah would be “no different” than the historic fights at Inchon in Korea, the flag-raising victory at Iwo Jima, or the bloody assault to remove North Vietnamese troops who occupied the ancient citadel of Hue in the 1968 Tet Offensive.
“You’re all in the process of making history,” Kent boomed in a clarion voice. “This is another Hue city in the making. I have no doubt, if we do get the word, that each and every one of you is going to do what you have always done â€” kick some butt.”
Marine battalion commander Lt. Col. Mike Ramos said many of the young fighters would be dashing into battle for the first time. In the barracks, Marines could be seen packing up gear, strapping anti-tank missile tubes to their packs. They would also be carrying gas masks in case of chemical weapons, a threat Ramos deemed unlikely.
“They’re sharpening their K-Bar fighting knives; they’re cleaning their weapons for the last time; they’ve fueled their vehicles and they’ve rehearsed the plan,” said Ramos, 41, of Dallas.
Ramos predicted that “freedom and democracy” would prevail in Fallujah within days.
“Make no mistake about it, we’ll hand this city back to the Iraqi people,” he said. “I think it will be rapid.”
During the fight, rules of engagement allow U.S. troops to shoot and kill anyone carrying a weapon or driving in Fallujah, a move aimed at allowing U.S. troops to fire on car bombers, Ramos said. Military age males trying to leave the city will be captured or turned back.
“If I see someone who looks like a martyr, driving at high speed toward my unit, I’ll send him to Allah before he gets close,” Ramos said.
Sattler reminded the troops that the assault would be a joint U.S.-Iraqi effort. The fledgling Iraqi military, which has been under intense U.S. training, needs to be led by example into the fight against Fallujah, he said.
“This is a whole can of whoop-butt all combined here,” Kent said, surveying the Marines surrounding him.
A pumped-up crowd shouted a deafening “Hoo-rah” in response.
Good luck and happy hunting, troops.