us has killed most of the faluja rebels

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    A US war plane has raked suspected pockets of insurgency in the north-east of Fallujah as smoke billowed skyward in the third full day of battle for the rebel enclave.

    Street fighting erupted after a night of shelling as rebels fought on, despite losing most of their insurgent enclave, west of Baghdad, to the US-led military, in the largest offensive in Iraq since last year's invasion.

    US Major Tim Kracher said the military could have easily rolled in and taken Fallujah quickly using its superior man and firepower but it was trying to avoid collateral damage by adopting a more careful approach.

    "That is why you are still seeing pockets of resistance," he said.

    Groups of rebels continue to trade fire with US troops in the heart of Fallujah as the US military claimed it controlled 70 per cent of the Iraqi city.

    As the punishing ground and air fire tore into pockets of resistance and militants who remained vowed to fight to the death, the Red Crescent painted a grim picture of conditions inside and sent a small team to evaluate.

    "Coalition forces control 70 per cent of the city," said a senior US military officer, after US tanks and infantry forged with relative ease through much of the dusty network of streets, rolling from north to south.

    At this rate, the US military said it expected to achieve total control of the Sunni rebel enclave within 48 hours, even as insurgents regrouped in the south and fought from inside central mosques and other buildings.

    Militants clad in black clashed from the roofs of a battle-scarred block with US Marines in an intense fire-fight, while four less skilled fighters were killed as they confronted the troops at another building, an AFP reporter embedded with the military said.

    Several bodies littered the streets in the notorious Jolan neighbourhood as troops moved from house-to-house, or rooftop-to-rooftop, barging through walls to avoid becoming easy targets out in the open.

    Hopelessly outnumbered, and with their leaders apparently gone, rebels met by an AFP reporter said they would fight to the end for their stronghold, which became a no-go area for US forces after a battle in April ended in stalemate.

    One said that he wanted the shelling to stop so he could confront the US soldiers face-to-face, saying that he preferred "a war in the streets".

    Exhausted from lack of sleeping and food, on top of fasting in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the fighters bragged of destroying US tanks with home-made explosive devices.

    The claim could not be verified but an AFP reporter saw one such armoured vehicle burnt out near the Hazra Mohammediya mosque in the city centre.

    Some took up positions in central mosques, with US Marines based outside.

    "They are trading fire in the centre of Fallujah. They are firing from several mosques," said a US Marine officer.

    Despite the resilience of some fighters, the overall resistance - expected to number some 2,000 to 2,500 fighters - was less effective than expected, with one marine officer describing it as "unorganised".

    At least 10,000 US troops from a pool of 20,000, who have been gathering outside Fallujah since the middle of October, have fanned out inside the city since Monday, backed by 2,000 Iraqi soldiers.

    Victory in Fallujah may come at a heavy price, both on the military and the civilian side.

    Eleven US soldiers and two Iraqi troops have died since the offensive was launched, along with scores of rebels, the military said.

    The casualties could not be independently verified.

    The Red Crescent said it had serious concerns about medical facilities in the city after US and Iraqi troops seized the general hospital on Monday, before the full-scale offensive was launched.

    Two Red Crescent officials and a local from Fallujah are headed for the city to evaluate the humanitarian situation inside, said Firdaws al-Ibadi, a spokeswoman for the relief agency.

    "We haven't got the okay for the team to enter the city but something should be done," she told AFP.

    With the hospitals in US hands, the rebels said they were giving first aid to some victims in homes where they could. The dead were being buried in gardens.

    The Red Crescent also plans to send a convoy on Thursday of five to six trucks laden with food into Fallujah, where a strict curfew has been imposed and water and electricity supplies cut.

    "Our first mission is to obtain permission from the multinational forces to enter the city and start evacuating the wounded, the elderly, the children and women," the Red Crescent spokeswoman explained.

    "If we fail to get the green light, we will ask to run the Fallujah general hospital," Ibadi said, adding that the Red Crescent had a team of 10 ambulances, five surgeons and a number of nurses on stand-by to go.

    There are also concerns over the well-being of the tens of thousands of people who have set up temporary homes in camps and villages around Fallujah.

    -AFP

    Dave R.
 
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