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Battle for Fallujah begins -

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Battle for Fallujah begins

Reporter: Jonathan Harley

KERRY O'BRIEN: Welcome to the program.

After months of planning, around 20,000 US and Iraqi forces are engaged in the biggest military
operation since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

In an operation dubbed Phantom Fury, artillery, planes and tanks are pounding the rebel stronghold
of Fallujah, an hour west of the capital Baghdad.

US and Iraqi officials believe Fallujah is an operations base for Al Qaeda frontman Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi and more than 2,000 insurgents who have carried out numerous terrorist attacks on
Westerners and Iraqis alike.

Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has given the green light to the operation despite United Nations
secretary-general Kofi Annan's fears that the assault will derail the January elections.

Jonathan Harley reports.

JONATHAN HARLEY: This is what US forces euphemistically call softening up the battlefield.

The elite US marines lead a 20,000-strong force. Among them, 2,000 newly trained Iraqi soldiers.

They're pounding the outskirts of a city which has become Iraq's latest test of strength and
resolve.

DONALD RUMSFELD, US DEFENCE SECRETARY: Success in Fallujah will deal a blow to the terrorists in
the country and should move Iraq further away from a future of violence to one of freedom and
opportunity for the Iraqi people.

JONATHAN HARLEY: Fallujah is central to Iraq's so-called Sunni Triangle, once the heart of Saddam
Hussein's power base.

Much of the US-led push is coming from the north and west.

Coalition forces have seized both bridges over the Euphrates river, as well as the hospital and
railway station to the north.

Fallujah is only a few kilometres across, but it's hatched with a maze of narrow streets and lanes
where insurgents may well be hoping to draw their enemy into close-quarter combat and stage ambush
after ambush.

US SOLDIER: They're shooting back at us, so it's just a constant exchange of fire.

LT GEN GREGORY NEWBOLD (RET.), FMR OPERATIONS DIRECTOR, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: Right now, Fallujah
is considered a victory for insurgents and for the terrorists, for the people who hope to oppose
the United States.

JONATHAN HARLEY: US commanders estimate that around 2,500 fighters are inside the city and
surrounding areas.

Some are thought to be loyal to the wanted Islamic militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

DONALD RUMSFELD: These are killers.

They chop people's heads off.

They are getting money from around the world.

They are getting recruits.

JONATHAN HARLEY: Others paint a more complex portrait of the insurgency, which include Sunnis once
loyal to Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime and tribal forces wanting to stake their claim.

PROFESSOR HUGH WHITE, STRATEGIC STUDIES, ANU: Well, that is one of the great difficulties about the
situation in Iraq at the moment.

There is a very wide range of different groups opposed to the coalition, opposed to the political
process in Iraq for a lot of different reasons.

JONATHAN HARLEY: US marines last went into Fallujah in April after four American contractors were
ambushed and killed while driving through the city.

But that ended in stalemate and US troops withdrew, constrained by concerns about civilian
casualties.

Seven months later, many of Fallujah's 300,000 residents have heeded warnings to flee.

DONALD RUMSFELD: There's nobody who knows how many people are in there and the US forces - I can
speak for them, not for the Iraqi forces, but the US forces have...they are disciplined, they are
well led, they're well trained, they are using precision and they have rules of engagement that are
appropriate to an urban environment and there aren't going to be large numbers of civilians killed
in...certainly not by US forces.

JONATHAN HARLEY: For the perhaps 30,000 people still in the besieged city, one can only imagine
conditions.

Doctors reportedly describe a chronic lack of medical equipment, trained staff, water and
electricity.

This offensive has been ordered by Iraq's Interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, providing a crucial
veil of legitimacy.

He addressed Iraq's new soldiers before they joined their first battle in the new Iraq.

PROF HUGH WHITE: I think it's a very important test for the Iraqi troops and, through that, an
important test for the American strategy in Iraq.

One of the key elements of the US strategy in Iraq is to train up the Iraqi forces so that Iraqis
themselves can take the lead in the battle against the insurgency and that's the mechanism that
America has in mind to run down its own forces over the next couple of years.

JONATHAN HARLEY: All sides are portraying the battle for Fallujah as symbolic of their wider
struggle.

Spokesman for the firebrand Shia Islamic leader Moqtada al-Sadr condemned what he called the state
of incursion by the occupation forces.

SHEIKH ABDUL-HADI AL-DARAJI, MOQTADA AL-SADR SPOKESMAN (TRANSLATION): That's why we call upon the
National Guards, Army and police of the Iraqi people not to help the occupation forces in targeting
the Iraqi people in Fallujah and not to be a tool of the hands of the occupation.

The attack on this city is an attack on the Iraqi people in general.

JONATHAN HARLEY: The will of the Iraqi people will be tested in January, should planned elections
go ahead.

But polls need security and Fallujah will be a crucial test.

PROF HUGH WHITE: Those elections are absolutely critical to the US strategy in Iraq.

In order to do that, they need to stabilise the security situation in the Sunni Triangle around
Baghdad and Fallujah has become, if you like, the centre of gravity of that security problem.

JONATHAN HARLEY: Insurgents had been seen roaming the streets in a display of bravado or perhaps
bluff.

Latest reports put advancing US troops close to the centre of the city.

Fallujah's fighters may well deploy classic guerrilla tactics and fade away to fight another day.

PROF HUGH WHITE: Even success in Fallujah won't by itself strike a decisive, strategic blow at the
insurgency because insurgents can, as is their nature, just decamp from Fallujah, move on to the
next place and live to fight another day.

KERRY O'BRIEN: And the election's just two months away.

Jonathan Harley with that report.

(c) 2006 ABC