Fires light up Fallujah’s skyline as U.S. aircraft and artillery attack
the city’s Jolan district.
U.S. forces pounded Fallujah and Najaf as deadlines expired and American patience with Sunni rebels and Moqtada al-Sadr apparently ran out.
Late last night US aircraft and tanks started blasting the Jolan district of Fallujah.
“I can hear more than 10 explosions a minute. Fires are lighting the night sky,” one witness said. “The earth is shaking under my feet.”
Live television pictures showed two large fires some 150 meters apart.
U.S. Marine commanders in the area told BBC that the attacks were not an all-out assault but were instead “defensive in nature” and that Marines were targeting positions that had fired on them. Stratfor (subscription required, sorry) is reporting that at least one Marine has been killed and several more wounded. Several U.S. armored vehicles were hit and set on fire. Al Arabiya is reporting that U.S. forces were unable to dislodge entrenched forces in the Jolan district.
In Najaf, earlier fighting left 57 to 64 Mahdi Army members dead, American officials say.
The clash occurred after insurgents loosed rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft fire at an M-1 tank patrolling the eastern side of the Euphrates River near Kufa, said General Kimmitt, the chief spokesman for the American command. American forces called in attack helicopters to supplement ground troops, killing the 57 insurgents.
This is a critical moment for the Coalition, and it’s no exaggeration to say that these two battles will determine in many ways how Iraq tips. If the Coalition can bring these rebellious cities to heel, there are two possibilities:
- The Iraqi fighters that have been killing Coalition forces will run out of steam, men or both and attacks will subside. Don’t expect a formal surrender — although al-Sadr may go into exile in Iran if he’s not captured or killed. Stratfor believes that a significant portion of the Sunni resistance is bottle up in Fallujah, which was the reason for the (unsuccessful) negotiations between Coalition and fighters there. They wanted to escape the city with their heavy weapons to fight another day. This option now appears “inoperative.”
- The attacks will be seen as brutal and — especially in Najaf — insultingly provocative. While the Sunni rebels in Fallujah may be wiped out or crippled, the Shi’a in the south may become so inflamed by infidel boots in Najaf and the death or capture of a popular cleric that the south will ignite. The question then is whether Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani will be willing or able to put the genie of Shi’a anger back in its bottle. It’s as yet unclear if his “red line” around Najaf has been crossed by the Americans.
These battles are necessary for the U.S. forces in Iraq, however, as there is a real danger that the supply lines to Baghdad from the south and west will be cut off by fighters. Already Blackhawk choppers are short on rotors and it’s becoming difficult to transport fuel into central Iraq.
The U.S. will emerge from this smoke and fire victorious; there’s no question of that. But will it then be resented but grudgingly accepted by a shocked, awed and cowed population or blindsided by an angry one? If the Iraqis are tired enough of a year of violence — and they may well be — they may resign themselves to Coalition governance no matter how inept it is. We’ll find out next week, I think, but I suspect the Iraqi resistance just got a shot in the arm.