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Town Preoccupies the Occupation

Col. Jefforey Smith commands a return to bombing runs and intensified manhunts around Fallouja, a hub of opposition.

November 17, 2003|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

FALLOUJA, Iraq — He called in airstrikes with a pair of 1,000-pound, laser-guided bombs on a home identified as a guerrilla sanctuary.

He ordered the detention of a popular religious leader and a well-known tribal chief when evidence surfaced linking them to the armed opposition.

To the many former high-ranking Iraqi officers lying low in this caldron of anti-U.S. sentiment, he has issued a stern warning: "We're going to take 'em down one at a time."

The Pentagon is proclaiming a get-tough approach -- dubbed Operation Iron Hammer -- in the Sunni Muslim heartland of central and western Iraq, where a stubborn insurgency has cost the lives of growing numbers of U.S.-led troops, stalled the national reconstruction effort and contributed to an intense political debate in Washington.

Perhaps no one better exemplifies this resolve than Col. Jefforey Smith, commander of the 5,000 or so paratroopers of the 3rd Brigade of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division.

And perhaps no place better illustrates the challenge facing U.S.-led forces in Iraq than Fallouja, a once-obscure provincial town now infamous as the symbolic hub of the opposition. Just south of here, enemy fire brought down a Chinook helicopter this month and killed 16 soldiers.

Images of the gleeful youngsters of Fallouja celebrating alongside a smoldering U.S. Humvee set ablaze in a roadside bombing have been broadcast across the globe. It is not a picture that pleases this no-nonsense Ohio State graduate, 42, who is charged with the task of taming Fallouja and its hostile environs in the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle.

"There's nothing easy about Fallouja," Smith acknowledged the other day at the sprawling 3rd Brigade compound here. "But I will tell you that Fallouja does have potential.... I'll be patient with the people willing to work with us. But if the Iraqi former regime loyalists want to continue to attack us, they're going to die in the process or be captured."

Just last week, 82nd Airborne troops here killed six "aggressors" and wounded four after being fired on, the military said.

In recent days, measures ordered by Smith have included a return to bombing runs by aircraft -- a mode of attack little seen in the last six months. One assault targeted suspected ambushers northeast of Fallouja with three 500-pound munitions; the other involved the 1,000-pound bombs, which obliterated the home south of Baghdad, also in Smith's sector.

Outraged Iraqis labeled the bombings Israeli-style reprisals for guerrilla assaults that cost the lives of three 82nd Airborne soldiers.

"This will only make people more angry with the Americans," predicted Salah Nouri, a father of four who lives near the Fallouja blast site, a barren stretch of debris-strewn desert along the highway east to Baghdad.

The colonel is unapologetic.

"This is a very deliberate, very precise application of combat power, designed to kill the enemy and deny him sanctuary," said Smith, a 20-year Army veteran who served in the Persian Gulf War.

The emergence of Fallouja as a flashpoint has much to do with the area's standing as a bastion of support for Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. According to the U.S. military, 80% of Falloujans supported the regime or owed their livelihood to the Baathists in Hussein's highly centralized economic system.

As U.S. forces advanced on Baghdad last spring, regime loyalists were able to regroup in welcoming locales like Fallouja and, eventually, set in motion what has become an effective guerrilla campaign. Money and weapons haven't been problems, given the proliferation of arms here and the ill-gotten fortunes of many Hussein cronies.

Ex-Baathists found it easy enough to enlist disaffected and typically unemployed young men to do their dirty work, often for a price, U.S. commanders say. Recruits from Fallouja have also shown up elsewhere in the country wreaking havoc, officials say.

"A lot of people came here and went to ground," Smith said. "And once things slowed down a little bit, they got a bit more organized, and we started seeing some attacks."

Systematic Campaign

Under Smith's direction, the 82nd Airborne has embarked on a systematic campaign to hunt down Hussein loyalists.

On Oct. 31, soldiers raided the home of a former Iraqi air force colonel, Taha Dayea Jaab, and seized bomb-making materiel and instructions, maps with roadside bombing locations pinpointed, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and letters addressed to Hussein, U.S. authorities said. Jaab, a scientist who collaborated on Hussein's Al Samoud missile project, was taken into custody along with three alleged confederates on suspicion of funding, planning and conducting attacks against coalition forces.

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