FALLUJAH, Iraq – Marines backed by tanks and helicopters battled Sunni insurgents around Fallujah (search) Thursday, trading fire from the minaret of a mosque and peppering the outskirts of the city with mortar rounds. Thousands of Iraqis traveled 30 miles from Baghdad (search) to deliver supplies and medicine to the besieged city.
For the second time in the four-day battle for Fallujah, U.S. forces called in one of their most devastating weapons -- an AC-130 gunship (search) that laid down heavy fire.
One Marine was killed Thursday, the fourth to die this week in Fallujah, where U.S. commanders have vowed to root out insurgents who have put up stiff resistance. Fallujah's hospital reported more than 280 Iraqi dead since the siege began Monday morning.
"The mission is going particularly well. We made inroads into the city and we are driving the enemy resistance back," said Marine Lt. Col. Greg Olsen. "We're winning every firefight."
The Marines have said they hold about a quarter of the city, one of the bastions of the Sunni-led insurgency that has plagued U.S. forces across central and northern Iraq for months.
But militants in the city showed equal confidence.
"They can't get in. We challenge them to enter," a guerrilla commander from inside the city told the Al-Jazeera (search) TV network in a phone interview. The commander, identified only as Abu Hafs, said he belonged to a group called the "Mujahedeen of the Victorious Sect," which includes non-Iraqi Islamic militants.
"Morale is high for mujahedeen, and for the civilians," he said.
Video footage shot on Wednesday showed fierce battles, with militants lying flat on their stomachs in deserted streets to squeeze off bursts of fire from heavy machine guns and send rocket-propelled grenades whizzing toward U.S. troops.
An American soldier, his arm bloodied, climbed out of a tank as gear attached to the turret burned. Others scrambled onto the tank to extinguish the fire and pull out a wounded soldier.
On Thursday, Marines knelt beside an armored vehicle, their arms on each other's shoulders, to pray over a dead comrade.
One officer said Marines encountered insurgents wearing suicide belts for the first time in the Fallujah campaign. Two Iraqis killed by Marines were found with belts bearing plastic explosives and metal for shrapnel. A raid on a weapons cache in a house also uncovered suicide belts.
It was a disturbing sign because suicide tactics had not been seen before in Fallujah.
Marines fought through the morning to recapture the Abdel-Aziz al-Samarrai mosque, which they said had been cleared of gunmen a day earlier. After hours of fighting, with helicopters firing from overhead, tanks moved in around the neighborhood and Marines seized the mosque, witnesses said.
Gunmen moved back into the area after a six-hour fight Wednesday, during which a helicopter hit the mosque's minaret with a missile and a warplane dropped a 500-pound bomb on the mosque's wall to allow Marines to flood inside.
Marines said the insurgents were using the mosque as a fire base Wednesday. But Iraqis said Wednesday's airstrike on the mosque killed civilians as they gathered for afternoon prayers, a claim denied by the Marines. The Islamic Clerics Committee (search), a Sunni organizations whose offices are next to the mosque, said 40 people, including whole families, were killed in the airstrike.
In another neighborhood, heavy fighting also broke out around the al-Khulafa mosque, which witnesses said U.S. forces seized. A Marine sniper climbed up the minaret and fired down on gunmen, who shot back with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons, witnesses said.
Four tanks moved in around the al-Khulafa mosque, followed by troops in Humvees and on foot. They fought gunmen until shooting died down around nightfall.
In a sign of widespread anger over the siege of the city of 200,000 people -- particularly the fighting around mosques -- Muhammed Hassam al-Balwa resigned as president of the U.S.-appointed Fallujah city council.
He told an AP reporter that the resignation was to protest "the killing of innocents in Fallujah and the striking of mosques."
Meanwhile, Marines who have encircled the city since the siege began allowed food and medical supplies to enter the city.
Thousands of Iraqis organized by Sunni clerics traveled 30 miles from the capital to deliver the supplies. They carried colorful flags and banners reading, "Sons of the great Fallujah, we are with you on the road of jihad [holy war] and victory."
After searching the vehicles for weapons, the Marines allowed two ambulances full of medical supplies, two minibuses carrying vegetables and other food and a dozen cars with Sunni clerics and officials to enter the city.
"We want to help the people of Fallujah because they are our brothers," said Sudeir al-Qadi, a volunteer in the convoy. "We Iraqis are one body, and Fallujah is part of this body."