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Residents may return to embattled Fallujah

| Saturday, Dec. 18, 2004

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi authorities said residents would begin returning to Fallujah within the next week, even as U.S. forces shelled a section of the city and insurgents proclaimed they would press the fight there, more than a month after American commanders declared the city "liberated."

Mayor Mahmoud Ibrahim Jirisi said families could start returning to some southern neighborhoods of the shattered city as early as Friday, though the Reuters news agency reported there was no sign of such movement by late afternoon.

"U.S. forces will allow families to return to the Andalous area starting today under a 10-day timetable," Ibrahim said, naming a southwest residential section of the largely empty city that was once home to about 300,000 people.

The interim government has pledged $600 to each returning family and begun positioning food and other relief materials, but it was not clear whether the city was habitable.

Fallujah has no power or water, and Marine civil affairs teams assessing damage from the massive offensive by U.S. and Iraq troops have concluded that "extensive repair is required before reactivating the electrical grid and city water system," the military said in a statement.

The city's medical facilities are not ready, either, the Marines concluded.

Fighting continues in the city. Marine officers and an insurgent spokesman said the firefights have flared in houses abandoned by residents, searched and marked as "cleared" by U.S. or Iraqi forces, then stealthily re-occupied by guerrillas.

The insurgents are sneaking through the deserted city and taking up ambush positions in the houses. An insurgent said the fighters' military goal was to cause casualties among U.S. and Iraqi patrols before dying in the fusillade the guerrillas know will come in response.

"They wish to die in Fallujah," said Abu Assad Dulaimy, a spokesman for the insurgent-led mujaheddin shura council that controlled Fallujah for six months before the U.S. and Iraqi Force offensive that began on Nov. 8.

"Until now, they do not control the city," Dulaimy said. "Casey and Allawi said people could go back next week," Dulaimy said, referring to Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and interim prime minister Ayad Allawi. "We will thwart that with attacks."

Senior Iraqi officials and U.S. officers describe the persistent fighting in Fallujah as little more than a nuisance, militarily. The November offensive, they say, deprived insurgents and their allies of their major command and control center.

An oft-stated reason for the offensive, which killed more than 70 U.S. service members, was returning the city to Baghdad's control in time for residents to take part in scheduled Jan. 30 elections.

That goal appears unlikely, with at least 200,000 Fallujans still living in makeshift camps or with relatives in other cities, and voter registration officially closed.

"We're going to work hard to continue fighting until the date of the election," Dulaimy said.

The spokesman, who said he was in Fallujah when he spoke to an Iraqi reporter by satellite telephone this week, claimed that fighters were steadily infiltrating the city though two neighborhoods in the south, then working their way to northern areas once considered secured.

"We reach those areas by sneaking from house to house, then those suiciders do combat with the American army," Dulaimy said.

He said most of the infiltrators were foreign Arabs. Iraqi fighters have shifted elsewhere, especially to the northern city of Mosul, where Iraqi and U.S. officials acknowledge surprise at the strength of the insurgent effort over the last month.

More than 150 Iraqis, including many National Guardsmen, have been found dead in the city. Yesterday, the bodies of four men were found beside a burning sedan on a city street. Three were described as foreigners, one of whom was beheaded.

Turkey's foreign ministry said the "several temporary security guards" were killed in Mosul en route to the Turkish embassy in Baghdad. Two other guards reached the capital and one returned to the Turkish border with a driver, the ministry said.

"Mosul is the right hand of Fallujah, and helped us open a new front to fight the Americans," Dulaimy said. "We admit we lost the media battle, but we didn't lose the military battle."

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