FALLUJAH, Iraq – U.S. forces moved to consolidate control of the center of this rebel-held city Friday, as troops pushed into southern neighborhoods to root out fighters dug in there.
As many as 50 rebels surrendered on Friday, said Col. Craig Tucker, who heads one of the two regimental combat teams that swooped in from the north on Monday.
“I understand from the enemy we have captured that their morale is low,” said Marine Lt. Col. Michael Ramos, who heads the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment. “They feel that the city is surrounded and the only thing remaining for them is to surrender or die.”
Those who capitulate tend to be Iraqis, said Col. Tucker, not the fervent foreign jihadists who are said to have used the city as their base of operations in recent months. The Iraqis may be less committed to fighting to the death, commanders said.
There were also indications Friday that several fighters from Chechnya, the breakaway Russian republic, had been found dead in Fallujah. There was no official confirmation of the report.
Muslim separatist fighters from Chechnya are rumored to have infiltrated into Iraq, along with fighters from Arab and other Muslim nations. There have also been reports of rebel fighters in Fallujah displaying white flags in a ruse to gain cover, to move from one position to another or to launch surprise attacks.
In central Fallujah, Marines said, a number of fighters carrying white flags – with rifles concealed below their robes – were seen among those gathered near a mosque. Marine snipers posted on a roof in the nearby U.S.-controlled municipal government complex opened fire, killing 10 to 12, said Staff Sgt. Jorge Olalde, of Charlie Company with the 1st Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment.
“They were playing the game of surrendering, but had their AKs under their cloaks,” Olalde said.
The downtown mosque where the fighters were spotted, Marines said, had been broadcasting a call to fight the U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies. U.S. snipers destroyed the mosque’s loudspeakers.
The bulk of the rebel force – including most of the non-Iraqi rebels – is believed to have been concentrated in south Fallujah. Fighters fleeing from U.S. troops are thought to have joined them. The rebels have been increasingly squeezed in an ever-tightening noose, U.S. commanders said. U.S. forces also block the city’s southern exits.
“They’re basically surrounded,” said Lt. Col. Gareth Brandl, commander of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. “They know they can’t go anywhere, so they’re fighting hard. … We’re crushing his back, one vertebrae at a time.”
The insurgents are said to have dug earthen mounds and other fortifications, booby-trapped houses and constructed tunnels and other underground positions.
“We’ve known for months that this (southern Fallujah) is where most of the foreign fighters are,” said Col. Tucker, displaying a satellite photograph of the city. “This (the south) is where we find fortifications. We’ve seen a lot of tunnels and spider holes. … These guys are probably better trained. They’ve got fortified positions.”
American and Iraqi forces now control 80 percent of Fallujah, Marine commander Lt. Gen. John Sattler told Pentagon reporters Friday in a telephone news conference from the embattled city. Coalition troops have killed about 600 insurgents and captured 300 who surrendered at a mosque, plus 151 elsewhere. Twenty-two coalition troops have been killed and 170 wounded. Forty of the wounded have returned to duty.
Meanwhile, a Syrian kidnapped with two French journalists has been rescued. He told authorities that he last saw the Frenchmen a month ago – the first confirmed word on the captives since they disappeared in August.
Several Marine companies and at least one Army unit have moved into the south of Fallujah, fighting house to house and street to street, commanders said. Resistance has been stiff.
South Fallujah may also be where rebel leaders are holed up, though the most wanted men – Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Iraqi ally Omar Hadid – may have fled.
The whereabouts of a third leader, religious sheik Abdullah Janabi, remains a mystery. A body resembling Janabi was found shot in the head at one of the mosques taken by Iraqi forces, U.S commanders said. But there is no positive identification, Col. Tucker said Friday.
On Friday, Marines from Charlie Company attacked a mosque and adjoining buildings, including an apartment house and an electronics warehouse that have been used as sniper positions against the U.S. forces in the government center, Marines said. A U.S. missile hit one of the mosque’s minarets, though the structure remains intact.
The extensive damage to Fallujah’s mosques has created an outcry in the Arab media, and the issue will likely resonate strongly in Iraq once the extent of the damage becomes known. Fallujah is a conservative religious community known as the city of mosques.
Marines have avoided demolishing mosques, but they have entered many. Minarets on at least two mosques have been taken out with 500-pound bombs, domes have been damaged, ornate glass shattered and walls knocked down.
“If we are fired on, mosques lose their protected status,” said Capt. Theodore Bethea, commander of Charlie Company.