FALLUJAH, Iraq – U.S. Marine officers said Wednesday that U.S. and Iraqi troops sweeping Fallujah (search) have uncovered enough weapons to fuel a nationwide rebellion and that clearing the former insurgent bastion of arms is holding up the return of civilians.
Most of Fallujah's estimated 250,000 civilians left the central Iraq city ahead of the devastating Nov. 8 assault and "it will be probably several more weeks" before significant numbers of them can return, said Lt. Col. Dan Wilson of 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
"We are looking at a very dense city, of some 50,000 structures — each and every one of them has a potential (weapons) cache hidden inside," he told reporters.
Searching out and disposing of weapons is "very tedious hard work for the Marines," he said. "People still have to be patient, they need to have a safe and secure environment before they can go back."
Without providing details, Wilson called the amount of arms uncovered in Fallujah "stunning."
"The amount of weapons was in no way just to protect a city," said Maj. Jim West, a Marine intelligence officer. "There was enough to mount an insurgency across the country."
A huge store of weapons and explosives was discovered at the mosque of Abdullah al-Janabi, a Muslim cleric and insurgent leader, according to a report on The New York Times' Web site. Al-Janabi is thought to have fled the city.
The Times said the mosque compound in a residential area had sheds stacked with TNT, mortar shells, bombs, guns, rocket-propelled grenades and ammunition. A naval mine was in the street outside, it added.
Military officers told the Times there were no arms in al-Janabi's nearby house, but they said they discovered files on people who had been tortured and executed for cooperating with U.S. authorities and their allies.
On Wednesday, Dr. Rafie al-Issawi, director of the Fallujah General Hospital, issued an appeal on Al-Jazeera television for doctors who fled the city to report to the Health Ministry the following day "to join us and help Fallujah residents."
Al-Issawi said he issued the appeal following a meeting with U.S. and Iraqi officials who assured him they want to restore medical services in the city as soon as possible.
Marines clearing houses in Fallujah have found Kalashnikov rifles (search), ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades, artillery shells and heavy-caliber cannon — with weapons caches often marked by a brick hanging by a string on homes' outside walls.
U.S. and Iraqi forces moving into the city smashed much of the insurgents' weaponry, bending gun barrels to prevent future use. Many large weapons caches were blown up quickly with only a cursory attempt at inventory.
West noted that insurgents stashed arms in mosques. "Even gravesides were used to bury weapons," he said.
West said U.S. forces turned up a "cook book" with instructions on using mercury nitrate and silver nitrate and descriptions of nerve agents. He didn't elaborate.
West said the majority of the weapons caches were in the south, as the insurgents likely expected the attack to be initiated from there.
Marines ran repeated feints against Fallujah's southern neighborhoods in the weeks before the assault, then attacked from the north. U.S. and Iraqi forces are stepping up operations ahead of elections scheduled for Jan. 30. Marine commanders called Fallujah an important staging point for the bombings, kidnappings and ambushes plaguing Iraq.
West said Marine planners originally earmarked four days for their forces to reach Fallujah's main north-south thoroughfare, but the goal was obtained in 24 hours.
Ultimately, the country's interim government will decide when the city is safe for civilians and Iraqi security forces will screen returnees, Wilson said.
"Iraqi forces are in a much better position to screen whoever is coming and going into Fallujah," Wilson said, adding the Iraqi troops performed better in Fallujah than in previous operations across Iraq, when many deserted.
"They were getting better and better, they bonded and have now become seasoned Iraqi battalions capable of pursuing terrorists," he said. "Before you know it, they will be dealing with the insurgency."