Battle for Falluja

Suicide squads await US troops' assault on Falluja
Hala Jaber, the only western newspaper reporter inside Falluja

SCORES of suicide bombers have been primed to defend Falluja against an imminent onslaught by American and Iraqi forces, according to insurgents’ commanders planning a ferocious counterattack.

More than 100 cars laden with high explosives have been distributed throughout the city to be detonated when US marines mount a long-awaited ground offensive, they claim.

One commander said that 300 foreign fighters had volunteered for suicide bombings as American forces laid siege to the stronghold of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, America’s most wanted man in Iraq.

Some would be used in 118 vehicles already rigged with explosives, he said; others would be waiting in booby-trapped homes for American and Iraqi soldiers hunting from house to house for al-Zarqawi’s fighters.

It was impossible to verify such claims, but as the only western newspaper reporter in Falluja last week, I saw thick black cables running across roads to the city centre, indicating the sites of “improvised explosive devices” — home-made bombs intended for American convoys.

A commander pointed out bridges, a railway track and several networks of narrow alleys in three districts of the city, saying they had been mined.

Snipers have been recruited by Falluja’s commanders from other cities and were already in position this weekend.

The insurgents said they had surface-to-air missiles with which to counter attacks by helicopter gunships.

They also claimed that a number of missiles had been tipped with deadly chemicals including cyanide. One said these would be fired at American forces from their rear.

“We have created a rear position, mainly outside Falluja, that will provide assistance to the fighters inside once the battle starts,” the commander said.

The battle for Falluja is regarded as a decisive test of the ability of American and Iraqi forces to quell the insurgents of the “Sunni triangle” to the north and west of Baghdad in time for elections in the new year.

Early yesterday a column of armoured vehicles moved into the outskirts in a manoeuvre designed to draw out rebels and provide fresh targets for the air power and artillery.

In the most intensive airstrikes on Falluja for months, a small Saudi-funded hospital and medical warehouse were hit, killing at least two people.

The insurgents struck back against US troops on a road to the north of the city, where fierce fighting was reported. A suicide car bomb attack on the 2nd Infantry Division in the nearby town of Ramadi wounded 20 soldiers.

The biggest attacks of the day, however, came in Samarra, north of Baghdad, where at least 33 people died. Two explosions occurred outside the mayor’s office and an American convoy heading towards the scene was hit. Militants then stormed three police stations.

Falluja has been the prime target of the coalition since it was taken over last summer by local insurgents and foreign militants, including the kidnap and beheading gangs of the infamous al-Zarqawi. The gangs’ presence has made Falluja a no-go area for western media organisations. The last four Arab media organisations also abandoned it last week after threats by insurgents who accused them of being biased towards coalition forces.

My journey to the besieged city last week was therefore not only long and circuitous but also nerve-jangling. I was driven there by the younger brother of one of the insurgents’ commanders who had guaranteed our security as far as possible.

Our contacts warned us to keep a low profile and avoid foreign militants. We needed no encouragement to do so. The main road to Falluja was strewn here and there with the charred remains of American tanks and other vehicles burnt long ago and never cleared away. Long convoys of tanks and troops were moving rapidly towards the city.

Civilians’ cars like mine were halted well away from the convoys by nervous soldiers waving their weapons to safeguard the vehicles’ route from the threat of suicide bombers.

We drove along a series of bumpy sand roads to a checkpoint manned by masked men at the edge of the city. To our relief we were waved through without any interrogation.

The districts comprising Falluja’s perimeter — where most of the insurgents are concentrated — were already largely in ruins. The crumbling remains of houses and shell-pocked walls reminded me of my home town Beirut in the 1980s at the height of Lebanon’s civil war.

Street after street stood empty. The heavy metal gates at the entrances to most houses of any size were locked, the occupants’ cars missing from their usual places on the pavements outside.

Towards the city centre we saw old men sitting in a handful of shops, killing time during the fasting hours of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan rather than entertaining any notions of business. A food market that is usually heaving with bustling shoppers was deserted.

An even more incongruous sight awaited us at a large road junction: despite the gravity of the crisis and the dearth of vehicles, traffic policemen sat on chairs at the roadside, gazing idly into the distance.

Many of the fighters could be distinguished from the civilians by their long wispy beards in the style of Osama Bin Laden.

Falluja has been a centre of anti-American activity ever since last year’s invasion. After a bloody but inconclusive three-week battle last April, American marines withdrew and an Iraqi force was installed to cleanse the city of insurgents. They merely infiltrated the force and regained control.

Since then, US officials say, Falluja has become the base of the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi, who has masterminded the wave of car bombings, kidnappings and murders — including that of the British engineer, Ken Bigley — that has spread terror throughout so much of Iraq.

Both the US-led coalition and Iyad Allawi, Iraq’s interim prime minister, regard control of Falluja as critical to the restoration of security.

The sheikhs of Falluja blame Allawi for failed negotiations to avert an attack on the city. They claim that he initially agreed to let them drive out the foreign fighters but later insisted that American troops should be sent in to help Iraqi national guards search for them from house to house.

“The drums of war have now sounded and not even Allawi has the power to stop it from happening,” said a source close to the talks.

As Allawi admitted that the window of opportunity for a peaceful settlement was closing, Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary-general, warned on Friday that an assault on Falluja could undermine the January elections by deepening Iraq’s divisions.

In Falluja itself, where during my last visit in September I found a power struggle under way between local insurgents and the militants coming in from outside, the divisions appeared this weekend to have been bridged.

A military committee of former Iraqi army officers has been liaising with various groups of insurgents to plan the defence of the city. Morale was high among those waiting to fight and they spoke of having Allah on their side in the battle ahead.

As the tension among ordinary civilians increased, American forces used loudspeakers and leaflets to warn that women and children should go, but that any man under 45 trying to enter or leave the city would be detained. The forces also asked for help in capturing terrorists.

Nobody doubted that much blood would be spilt in the so-called “city of mosques”. Trenches have been dug in Falluja’s cemeteries in preparation for hurried burials of “martyrs” in white shrouds.

Hospitals and makeshift clinics were on high alert yesterday, but doctors were already complaining that they were short of medicines. They appealed for antibiotics, surgical sutures and intravenous drugs needed for post-operative care.

Plans had been made for us to stay in a makeshift hospital near a mosque, but a local commander judged the risk of abduction from there to be too great. Instead I was directed with Ali Rifaat, the Sunday Times reporter in Iraq, to a private house in a row where each property was occupied by one man who had stayed to protect it. The only condition was that I should cook the men a meal in time for the end of their Ramadan fast.

After dining on two pots of rice mixed with tomato paste, onions and aubergines, a dish of potatoes and some fatty lumps of slowly fried meat, we sat on thin mattresses spread over the floor to await the nightly bombardment.

It was just after midnight when the first bomb crashed to earth half a mile from the house. A minute later a second bomb landed within a few hundred yards and jolted me in my chair, to the amusement of my hosts.

“Brace yourself,” said one of the men. “This is just beginning.”

I began to count out loud as the bombs tumbled to the ground with increasingly monotonous regularity. There were 38 in the first half-hour alone.

The bombing continued in waves until 5.15am as the American forces softened up their targets, perhaps trying to draw anti-aircraft fire that would help them to identify enemy positions.

The insurgents did not respond to the bombs, nor to the crackle of fire from an AC-130 Spectre gunship, one of the most fearsome weapons in the US armoury, whose 25mm Gatling guns can fire up to 1,800 rounds a minute.

The gunship circled in the night sky, raining a torrent of bullets down on buildings and streets nearby. Few if any fighters were out on the streets, but as a show of force it was devastatingly effective.

Earlier the buzz of US drones, known to locals as “the flies”, mingled with the sound of television commentators still analysing the results of the American elections.

The 50,000 people thought to have stayed in Falluja knew the results had probably helped to determine the timing of the assault. The victory of President George W Bush, they reasoned, meant it would come sooner rather than later.

As the night wore on, some of the men sat around the computer watching videos of “resistance actions” as the bombs continued to shake their city.

One piece of footage repeated over and over again was of a young fighter from the Mahdi army of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shi-ite cleric. He was trying to fire a rocket-propelled grenade against an American position from the middle of an empty square in the Shi’ite suburb of Sadr City in Baghdad.

As the young fighter was crouching on the ground, a sniper’s bullet hit him in the leg. He faltered but attempted to fire his renade anyway. Another bullet was fired into his head, his body jerked and he slumped to the ground dead.

The men watching this film, although not fighters themselves, analysed his actions and the quick reactions of the sniper much as a group of youths might replay a controversial moment in a football match. They concluded that the Shi’ite was an amateur compared with the Sunni insurgents who would soon be squaring up to the American marines in Falluja.

“The Shi’ites are not as well trained as our fighters here in Falluja,” said Muhanad, a car mechanic. “Ours are professionals and the Americans will soon learn their lesson.”

The men moved on to other clips showing attacks by al- Zarqawi’s Tawheed wal-Jihad group. One, filmed from a distance, showed a suicide bomber ramming his car into an American convoy in a burst of orange flame.

The men were satisfied with the “quality” of the attack but thought the film lacked the professionalism to be expected of a group with a well funded media and propaganda department.

Alaa, a computer programmer, said Tawheed wal-Jihad had offered him a job in this department but he had turned it down. “I did not want to be involved with any group, let alone them,” he said.

His friends moved on to watch a series of still pictures of various “martyrs” — both civilians and fighters — discussing each case and the circumstance of their deaths.

When they were bored with watching the endless deaths on the tape, the men played video games as the bombardment continued.

A heated discussion ensued about al-Zarqawi when Mohammed, the commander’s brother, claimed that he was not even in Iraq, let alone in Falluja.

“We all know who the Tawheed’s main commander in Falluja is,” he said, to a chorus of “Omar Hadid”.

Hadid, a former electrical engineer, is viewed by the Americans as “a home town hero” who leads a force of 1,000 to 1,500, including many Syrian and Jordanian fighters. Its aim is to evict American forces from Iraq.

According to Mohammed and Alaa, Hadid fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after being pursued on murder charges. He went first to Syria, then to Saudi Arabia, returning to Falluja at the end of the war.

His friends sent fighters from Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan and asked him to introduce them to Iraqi insurgents.

He fought US forces in the April offensive on Falluja and then joined al-Zarqawi’s group, rising to become its commander in the city. “You wouldn’t believe it if you saw him,” said Mohammed, who had seen Hadid manning a checkpoint last week. “He is a really simple man, a quiet person who says very little generally.”

Alaa insisted: “Whether al-Zarqawi lives in Iraq, or not, does not matter. The fact is that he does not live in Falluja as the Americans and Allawi claim.

“Whatever disagreement we have with the Tawheed group, I still think it is good for Iraq that there is such a powerful force to confront and instil fear in the American and coalition forces.” When the number of bombs passed the 100 mark, Mohammed mused: “I wonder how the pilots feel when they are bombing Falluja or any city from the skies.”

Uday, a thin man in an American baseball cap, replied: “They feel like they are masters of the skies. All-powerful and strong.”

Not all those I left behind after two days in Falluja were young men. Rushdi Ayed, 57, said that staying behind with his wife and seven children was the honourable thing to do.

“My house can be destroyed but I will never leave Falluja and abandon it so that it may be destroyed by the Americans,” he said. “If necessary I, too, will fight as will my wife and daughters to defend our city.”

The family had stocked up on food and water and was ready for anything, he said.

“We refuse to be turned into refugees by the Americans,” added a neighbour, 55-year-old Haj Jassem Faraj. “It is better to remain and die in one’s home with dignity than to turn into a refugee with nothing.”

His wife recited verses from the Koran as the drones hovered above. “My four sons are at an age where they should be getting married, but I do not have the financial means,” Faraj said, echoing a common complaint that those who had promised freedom had brought insecurity. His daughter Hawraa, 14, has been unable to attend classes or school since the start of term in September.

The fate of such families may ultimately depend on whether the estimated 1,200 to 6,000 insurgents make a determined stand, as they did in April, or melt away in the face of overwhelming American firepower, allowing the Iraqi forces to take over.

One insurgent commander was in no doubt that his men would make an implacable enemy. “You will hear of unconventional tactics being used in Falluja,” he said.

“We are very confident of our preparations.”

Additional reporting: Ali Rifaat