U.S. bombs Fallujah; 40 feared dead

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FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) – U.S. Marines in the third day of a battle to pacify this Sunni Muslim city fired a rocket and dropped a 500-pound, laser-guided bomb on a mosque compound Wednesday, and witnesses said as many as 40 people were killed. Shiite-inspired violence spread to key cities in Iraq.

The fighting in Fallujah and neighboring Ramadi – just east of Baghdad – has killed 15 Marines since Monday and was part of an intensified uprising involving other Sunni towns in northern and central Iraq, and Shiite population centers south of the capital.

Marines waged a six-hour battle around the Abdul-Aziz al-Samarrai mosque with militants holed up inside before a Cobra helicopter fired a Hellfire missile at the base of its minaret and an F-16 dropped the bomb, said Marine Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne.

The fight began when a Marine vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade fired from the mosque, wounding five Marines, and a large U.S. force converged on it, Byrne said.

Witnesses said the strike came as worshippers had gathered for afternoon prayers.

An Associated Press reporter saw cars ferrying out dead and wounded. Witnesses said part of a wall surrounding the mosque compound was destroyed but the main building was not damaged.

In Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told CNN that from photos of the mosque he had seen, “the actual mosque structure itself” was not damaged.

Its minaret was damaged, but still standing, an AP reporter said.

“It is a holy place, there is no doubt about it,” Kimmitt added. “It has a special status under the Geneva Convention that it can’t be attacked.

“However, it can be attacked when there is a military necessity brought on by the fact that the enemy is storing weapons, using weapons, inciting violence and executing violence from its grounds,” he said.

Because casualties were rushed to makeshift clinics in private homes and mosques, the number of dead and wounded was unclear.

During fighting elsewhere in Fallujah, U.S. forces seized another mosque, the al-Muadidi mosque, and a Marine climbed its minaret and fired down on gunmen, witnesses said. Insurgents hit the minaret with rocket-propelled grenades, causing it to partly collapse, the AP reporter said.

Insurgents also blew up two highway overpasses into the city to prevent U.S. troops from using them. A helicopter rocketed three houses, and the reporter saw at least five wounded people, including a young boy, being pulled out of one them.

Byrne said the Marines controlled about a quarter of Fallujah.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said U.S. forces launched the operation in Fallujah to capture insurgents involved in attacks on Americans, including the ones who mutilated and burned the bodies U.S. civilians last week. He said the troops had pictures and names of those involved and were not attacking the town.