The Battle for Fallujah

Matthew B. Stannard, Chronicle Staff Writer

San Francisco Chronicle

"We shouldn't be underestimating the potential for civil casualties here, " Gresham said. "Somewhere out there are 50,000 Iraqis -- allegedly -- that we don't know about."

U.S. and Iraqi forces smashing their way through Fallujah's outer defenses may soon face a wild card -- tens of thousands of noncombatant civilians at dire risk in the war zone -- that could dramatically reshape their strategy, analysts say.

As a military target, Fallujah resembles three concentric rings: "a hard outer crust, a softer and less-defined inner core and then probably a hard core or bastion where the final battle will take place inside the town," said John Gresham, co-author with Tom Clancy of "Special Forces: A Guided Tour of U. S. Army Special Forces.''

Right now, Gresham said, coalition forces are focusing on that outer crust, made up of generally lightly armed insurgents firing from behind heavily fortified, and in some cases booby-trapped, barricades. But as troops move farther into the city, the number, location and behavior of civilians could determine the speed and ferocity of the next stage of combat.

CNN reporters embedded with the troops described U.S. forces firing 120mm shells from M1 Abrams tanks at booby-trapped barricades, setting off huge explosions. Other reports said the invaders were using mortars and air attacks to set off explosives on the city's perimeter as Iraqi troops backed up by U.S. forces took over a train station.

That pounding approach is different from tactics used in recent battles within Iraq, leading some analysts to suggest that the military is approaching Fallujah with a different perspective.

"It is certainly a more muscular, robust approach to Fallujah than we used in Samarra or Najaf," said John Pike, a defense analyst and director of GlobalSecurity.org, an independent think tank. "They basically think that this is enemy territory ... whereas in Samarra and Najaf they were convinced that the enemy had holed up in friendly territory."