Marines say the toll is expected to rival those seen in Vietnam War.
With U.S. Forces near Fallujah – The number of dead and wounded from the expected battle to retake insurgent-controlled Fallujah probably will reach levels not seen since Vietnam, a senior surgeon at the Marine camp outside Fallujah said Thursday.
Navy Cmdr. Lach Noyes said the camp’s hospital is preparing to handle 25 severely injured soldiers a day, not counting walking wounded and the dead.
The hospital has added two operating rooms, doubled its supplies, added a mortuary and stocked up on blood reserves. Doctors have set up a system of ambulance vehicles that will rush to the camp’s gate to receive the dead and wounded so units can return to battle quickly.
The plans underscore the ferocity of the fight the U.S. military expects in Fallujah, a Sunni Muslim city about 35 miles west of Baghdad, which has been under insurgent control since April.
On Thursday, U.S. troops pounded Fallujah with airstrikes and artillery fire, softening up militants ahead of the expected assault.
Loudspeakers at Fallujah mosques blared out Quranic verses and shouts of “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great,” during the assault, residents said.
American aircraft blasted militant positions in northeastern and southeastern parts of the city, the military said. U.S. batteries later fired two to three dozen heavy artillery shells at insurgent positions, the military said.
U.S. forces have been building up outside Fallujah for weeks in preparation for taking the city back.
Military officials say they expect U.S. troops to encounter not just fighters wielding AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, but also heavy concentrations of mines, roadside bombs and possibly car bombs.
“We’ll probably just see those in a lot better concentration in the city,” said Maj. Jim West, an intelligence officer with 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
West said he thinks there are some 4,000 to 5,000 fighters between Fallujah and nearby Ramadi, and they may try to draw troops into cramped urban areas in Fallujah that have been booby-trapped.
More than 1,120 U.S. soldiers and Marines have died in Iraq since the war began.
The deadliest month was April, when fierce fighting killed 126 U.S. troops, largely at Fallujah and Ramadi, before a cease-fire virtually turned Fallujah over to the insurgents.
Even then, the death toll was far below the worst month of Vietnam, April 1969, when the U.S. death toll was 543 at the height of American involvement there.
The toll in human suffering has already been grave.
Staff Sgt. Jason Benedict was on a convoy heading to the Fallujah camp Saturday when a suicide bomber rammed a vehicle into the truck Benedict and his platoon mates were traveling in.
A few minutes later, mortars and rifle fire rained down on the survivors.
As he rolled toward the safety of a ditch, Benedict saw one of his friends crawling on all fours, with blood pouring from his face.
“You’ve got to expect casualties,” said Benedict, 28. The fight for Fallujah, he said, “is overdue.”
Author: Tom Lasseter
News Service: Knight Ridder Tribune News