WASHINGTON – There could be several more days of intense fighting in the U.S.-led battle to retake Iraq's rebel-controlled city of Fallujah (search), the commander of land forces said on the second day of the assault.
Army Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz refused Tuesday to say how many American troops have been killed in the operation, saying only that casualties can be counted "in a dozen" and not specifying whether that included the wounded.
Metz said troops have captured a very small number of rebel fighters but had "imposed significant casualties against the enemy." Again, he didn't give a number.
"I think we're looking at several more days of tough urban fighting," Metz told a Pentagon news conference relayed by video from Baghdad.
Although capturing or killing the senior insurgent leadership is a goal of the operation, Metz said he believed the most wanted man in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search), had escaped the city.
It was unclear how many other insurgents had remained in the city for the fight, given months of warnings by U.S. officials and Iraqis that a confrontation was in the offing.
Pentagon officials said earlier Tuesday that they didn't yet know why there was lighter-than-expected resistance. They offered possible explanations including that many of the insurgents left the city before the operation started, that troops have not yet reached the center location to which the resistance has retreated or that the U.S.-led operation was simply overpowering rebels.
It is not necessarily bad news if the fighters have scattered, since the main objective is to give control of the city back to the Iraqi government, one official said. Though it means coalition forces would have to fight them another day in another location, pushing them out of Fallujah at least means they have been denied that city as a safe haven, he said.
Metz said the insurgents that were encountered, were fighting hard and operating in small teams. But he said they are not always fighting to the death, instead falling back to continue the battle. Metz said U.S. forces are somewhat ahead of schedule in capturing key objectives in the city.
He also praised U.S.-allied Iraqi forces and said they had "no discipline problems since we began this operation." Whether new Iraqi security units would stay in for a major offensive was an open question before the battle.
There was confusion over casualty figures for the Fallujah operation, although at one point Tuesday, defense officials in Iraq said 16 Americans had been killed over Monday and Tuesday all across Iraq — including three killed in Fallujah combat on Tuesday and two killed by mortars near the northern city of Mosul. Eleven others died Monday, most of them as guerrillas launched a wave of attacks in Baghdad, its general region and southwest of Fallujah.
Shortly after the offensive began Monday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said civilians in the city of Fallujah got plenty of warning to steer clear of the fighting between U.S. and insurgent forces.
"There aren't going to be large numbers of civilians killed and certainly not by U.S. forces," Rumsfeld said.
One risk of using overwhelming force to regain control of rebel-held Fallujah is that civilian casualties — nearly inevitable under the circumstances — could trigger a backlash elsewhere in Iraq and in the Arab world against the U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared with Rumsfeld Monday and said it was likely the insurgents would try to use civilians as shields against attacking U.S. troops.
Rumsfeld made no prediction about the outcome at Fallujah but said defeating the insurgents there is a critical step in the battle for a free Iraq because "one part of the country cannot remain under the rule of assassins."
"These are killers," he said. "They chop people's heads off."
Rumsfeld and Myers both said victory in Fallujah would not end the insurgency or eliminate the need for more fierce combat in coming weeks.
"These folks are determined," Rumsfeld said, referring to the estimated several thousand Saddam Hussein loyalists and Islamic extremists who are believed to be mainstays of the insurgency. He said they were still getting money and recruits from outside Iraq.
"It's going to take time" for enough ordinary Iraqis to reach a "tipping point" and turn on the insurgents, Rumsfeld said. He described the insurgents as criminals, assassins, terrorists and remnants of Saddam's government, and said they cannot be allowed to "run roughshod" over the city.
Rumsfeld said he was confident that Acting Prime Minister Ayad Allawi would not pull the plug on the U.S.-led offensive before it was finished, saying, "The decision to go (into Fallujah) included the decision to finish and to finish together."