A further 135 American soldiers died in Iraq in November, equalling the number killed in April, previously the worst single month for US casualties. Seventy-one died in the assault on Fallujah and 600 were wounded, according to the US military in Baghdad.
The casualty rate is more than 10 per cent of the 5,000 to 6,000-strong US force sent into the city. General John Sattler, the commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which is in charge of western Iraq, said yesterday that 62 of those killed in Fallujah were marines.
US soldiers now hold all parts of the city, but house-to-house searches continue. Sometimes houses already searched are reoccupied. Insurgents wait for the soldiers to enter before opening fire at close range. The marines try to avoid ambushes by blasting holes in side walls instead of coming in by the front door. They throw grenades into every room before entering.
Most of the 300,000 people who lived in Fallujah before the battle have fled to Sunni Muslim areas of Baghdad and are staying with relatives and friends. Many of the fighters have also moved into the capital. Much of the city they left is in ruins, and the electricity and water systems have been wrecked. The poorest of the refugees are living in tents.
In the Jadriyah area of Baghdad, more than 100 families have sought shelter around the light blue al-Mustafa mosque on the campus of al-Nahrain University. “Even if I have to rebuild my house brick by brick I will go back,” said one man, standing by the gate.
In a nearby building sat Sheikh Hussein, the imam of the mosque, who expresses deep suspicion of all foreigners. He said that giving an interview “was like giving away all your secrets and seeing them in a newspaper.” He added that he had read on the internet that Margaret Hassan, the Irish aid worker kidnapped and probably murdered, was “a spy for 30 years.”
The battle for Fallujah brings the number of Americans killed in Iraq since the invasion to at least 1,250, with 9,300 wounded. The number of insurgents killed in Fallujah is not known, but was put by the interim Iraqi government at more than 2,000.
The US military commanders had 2,000 Iraqi troops with them. Seven Iraqi soldiers were killed and 43 wounded, according to General Sattler.
The US, and the Iraqi interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, hopethey have eliminated the headquarters of the Sunni Muslim uprising by capturing Fallujah. The discovery of workshops to fill the side panels of vehicles with explosives for suicide bombings, and large amounts of small arms and mortars proves Fallujah was the logistics centre for the rebellion in western Iraq.
But the willingness of so many insurgents to fight and die in the face of overwhelming US superiority shows their level of determination. The visit of Mr Allawi to Jordan today to talk to Sunni tribal, religious and political leaders, mostly from Ramadi near Fallujah, is unlikely to influence fighters.
* The 138,00-strong US force in Iraq is being expanded by 12,000 troops to its highest level since at least May 2003, to strengthen security ahead of the elections scheduled for January, the Pentagon said yesterday. Under the plan, some 1,500 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division will be sent this month, while the combat tours of about 10,400 servicemen already in Iraq will be lengthened.