U.S. forces pounded parts of Fallujah from the air and ground Thursday, targeting insurgents in a city where American forces were said to be gearing up for a major offensive.
Al-Jazeera television broadcast a threat by an unspecified armed group to strike oil installations and government buildings if Americans launch an all-out assault on Fallujah. The report was accompanied by a videotape showing about 20 armed men brandishing various weapons, including a truck-mounted machine gun.
Early Thursday, U.S. aircraft fired on several barricaded militant positions in northeast and southeastern Fallujah, the military said. Later in the day, U.S. artillery batteries fired two to three dozen 155mm shells at insurgent bastions in the city, the military said.
Insurgents and U.S. forces also clashed briefly Thursday in Ramadi, west of Fallujah, but there were no U.S. casualties, the military added.
The fresh action followed overnight fighting on the southeastern outskirts of Fallujah after insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at Marines. Two insurgents were killed while no U.S. casualties were reported, said Lt. Nathan Braden, of 1st Marine Division. Hospital officials in Fallujah reported three civilians were injured in the overnight shelling.
U.S. forces are preparing for a major offensive in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, and other Sunni militant strongholds in hopes of curbing the insurgency ahead of January's election.
An Iraqi National Guard patrol was hit Thursday by a car bomb in Iskandariyah, an insurgent hot spot 30 miles south of Baghdad, killing three people and wounding 15, Iraqi hospital officials said.
A suicide car bomber killed three and wounded nine others when his explosive-laden vehicle barreled into the city government offices in Dujail, 46 miles north of the capital, police said.
On Wednesday, a U.S. soldier was killed and another wounded in a roadside bombing 12 miles south of the capital. A suicide driver detonated his vehicle at a checkpoint near Baghdad airport, injuring nine Iraqis and forcing U.S. troops to close the main route for hours.
Gunmen killed a senior Oil Ministry official, Hussein Ali al-Fattal, after he left his house in the Yarmouk district of western Baghdad, police said. Al-Fattal was the general manager of a state-owned company that distributes petroleum byproducts.
The violence served as a grim reminder of Iraq's rapidly deteriorating security situation, which President Bush must address now that he has been re-elected.
On Thursday, Al-Jazeera aired video of three Jordanian truck drivers taken hostage by a militant group calling itself Jaish al-Islam, or Army of Islam. The men appealed to their country to warn its citizens against working with coalition forces in Iraq, Al-Jazeera said, although their voices were not audible on the tape.
They were part of a convoy of seven truckers who came under attack Tuesday near Fallujah, according to an official at the Jordanian Truckers Association. One of the drivers was killed in the attack, two others are still missing and a fourth man escaped, he said.
More than 170 foreigners have been kidnapped and more than 30 of them including three Americans and a Briton killed in Iraq since Saddam Hussein's regime fell in April 2003. At least six of the foreigners were beheaded by followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who has sworn allegiance to al-Qaida.
Another militant group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, posted a videotape on a Web site showing the beheading of man it said was an Iraqi army major captured in Mosul. The group called Maj. Hussein Shanoun an "apostate" and said he confessed to participating in attacks against insurgents.
Just before his death, Shanoun warned Iraqi soldiers and police against "dealing with the infidel troops," meaning the Americans.
Insurgents have stepped up attacks on Iraq's U.S.-trained security forces, who the Americans hope will assume greater responsibility to enable Washington to begin drawing down its forces now at their highest levels since summer 2003.
More than 85 percent of the estimated 165,700 multinational troops in Iraq are Americans, despite U.S. efforts to encourage other countries to share the burden.
In other developments Thursday:
Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi reaffirmed that Italy would keep its 3,000 troops in Iraq for as long as the Iraqi government wanted. His comments, following a meeting with Iraq's interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, came a day after Hungary said it would withdraw its 300 non-combat troops from Iraq by March 31, undercutting Bush's effort to hold the multinational force together.
The Czech parliament voted to extend the mandate of about 100 Czech troops in Iraq by two months, to Feb. 28, 2005.
Allawi received encouragement from Pope John Paul II, a staunch opponent of the war, for building democratic institutions in Iraq. John Paul received Allawi at the Vatican and in a brief speech read for the frail pontiff by an aide said he was praying "for all the victims of terrorism and wanton violence" and for those working for the reconstruction of Iraq.
Iraqis who live outside the country will be allowed to vote in the January national balloting, the Iraqi election commission said. Commission spokesman Fareed Ayar said the government planned to establish voting centers in countries with large Iraqi populations.
The body of a Kurdish contractor missing for three months was found in a deserted area outside Kirkuk, an Iraqi official said. Youssef Ahmed, who did business with the interim Iraqi government, was found shot in the head with his hands bound behind his back, said Maj. Gen. Anwar Mohammed of the Iraqi National Guard.
The international medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres said in Belgium it was pulling out of Iraq because of the escalating violence and targeting of aid workers. The organization is also known as Doctors Without Borders.
Iraq's first group of security officials were in Norway for weeklong training at NATO's elite Joint Warfare Center.
Copyright 2004 The Associated Press.
Copyright © 2004 ABC News Internet Ventures
U.S. Forces Pound Parts of Fallujah From the Air and Ground, Targeting Insurgents Nov. 4, 2004
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