Troops and fear encircle Fallujah; rebel-held city heavily shelled

FALLUJAH, Iraq — Desperation settled yesterday over the civilians who remained in Fallujah, ducking the heaviest aerial barrage in months and waiting as 10,000 U.S. Marines and Army soldiers encircled the insurgent-held city in anticipation of an imminent attack.

The siege of Fallujah, which also includes Iraqi military forces, was not proceeding as smoothly as planned, however. Sometime Friday night, a captain in the 5th Battalion, 3rd Brigade of the Iraqi army deserted after receiving a full briefing from the Americans on the plan for the assault, military officials said.

U.S. soldiers think that the captain, a Kurd, simply became frightened after receiving the briefing. He is thought to be heading north, toward Kurdish territory, and officials do not consider him a threat to leak the plan to insurgents. But the military is trying to locate him through Iraqi sources.

CNN reported yesterday that the captain was believed to have taken notes during the briefing, and that when he departed, he left behind only his uniform and a cot. The Kurds were U.S. allies during the invasion to depose Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Although thousands of civilians have fled the city of 300,000, residents who remained in Fallujah expressed increasing dread and said conditions had become dire.

The main hospital in Fallujah was suffering from shortages of doctors and nurses and supplies. Many doctors and hospital officials have already fled the city and American checkpoints are gradually closing access roads, said Thamer Abdulla, a medic.

A new hospital, built with Saudi financing and fully furnished with medical equipment and ready to open its doors, was destroyed by a pair of missiles yesterday, witnesses said. It was unclear who had fired the missiles, but U.S. jets had pounded the city in the heaviest airstrikes in six months — including five 500-pound bombs.

Fewer than a third of the city's employees are showing up for work, said Ahmad Awad, who works for the municipality.

Khalil Ebrahim, a shop owner, called the situation in the city "truly terrifying."

"It is unbearable now," Ebrahim said, describing a once-bustling city that is a ghost town at night, where only the sounds of shelling and circling aircraft are heard.

As the insurgents prepared for the expected attack, they invited journalists inside to report their side of the war.

"All media will be allowed into Fallujah to witness the crusade against Islam and see the real face of America. U.S. media will not be excluded," said a statement by the Fallujah mujahedeen Shura (council), composed of insurgent leaders, tribal chiefs and Sunni Muslim clerics.

"We will protect and transport them to the location of the events. There will be a special building for the journalists."

The offer mimics a practice U.S.-led forces introduced for last year's Iraq invasion in which reporters are attached to military units and live alongside the troops.

The few journalists remaining in Fallujah are mainly Iraqis, although some work for foreign news outlets.

The U.S. military is unsure what awaits it in Fallujah, a Sunni Triangle city that has been under insurgent control since April, when Marines called off an attack because of a public outcry in Iraq over civilian casualties.

Estimates of the number of fighters in the city range from 1,000 to 6,000. It is not known if Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has taken responsibility for beheadings of foreigners and dozens of car-bomb attacks, is there.

Reports are circulating among Iraqi and U.S. officials that large numbers of insurgents have already left the Fallujah area in anticipation of the coming invasion.

The militants are reportedly fanning to other cities in the Sunni Triangle, where they will stage diversionary attacks — and underscore that despite an expected defeat for insurgent forces in Fallujah, the rebel movement remains strong.

"There will be horrific events outside Fallujah," said a senior U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I would never tell you that violence in Sunni areas won't get worse when you open up a battle."

He added that officials expect that period to last "not many weeks."

"You will have a shortish period when everybody will say the whole country's falling apart but they (the insurgents) will not be able to maintain that tempo."

Outside the city, two Marine noncommissioned officers said their units have plenty of high-tech equipment and training, but little experience.

"About 95 percent of my men have no major combat experience and many have none at all," said Sgt. Michael Edwards, 35, a tank-company master gunner. "Their performance will be based on their training, not on combat experience."

Master Sgt. Roy Meek said that commanders often find it necessary to be hard on the Marines to keep their minds focused on the battle ahead.

"The only thing that will prepare them is the first bullet," Meek said.

While some of the Marines fought in the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and others took part in the 1991 Gulf War, the combat experience of many of the young Marines is limited to a few light-arms attacks by guerrillas who have fired on their convoys.

Meek said some Marines had told him they were scared and did not want to fight. "I tell them they should be scared. It is a natural instinct," he said.

Since their arrival, the Marines' weapons drills have been accompanied by briefings on local culture and on the variety of anti-American groups in Fallujah, from al-Zarqawi's foreign militants to Saddam supporters with combat experience.

"I fought in the war last year but that was just small-arms fire. Now we are talking about an offensive. There could be snipers and bombs in Fallujah," said Sgt. Jonathan Herrera, 24, of New York City.

Pvt. 1st Class David Smith of Tampa, Fla., said he tries not to think too much about his lack of combat experience.

"My father was a Marine," Smith said. "I called him about Fallujah. He said wars have changed a lot. He told me to keep my head down."

Gunnery Sgt. Castillo Ishmael, 34, of Hereford, Pa., had other advice: "Aside from the training, I tell my men that if they believe in God they should leave their fate in his hands."

Compiled from The New York Times, The Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and Reuters.