FALLUJAH, Iraq “” U.S. Marines launched Operation Vigilant Resolve on Monday in Fallujah, the volatile city in which four American civilians were slain in one of the more grisly displays of violence since the war began last year.
One U.S. Marine was killed in fighting in the area Monday, said Lt. Col. Gregg Olson, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.
About 1,200 Marines, joined by two battalions of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corp. (search), began surrounding the city with checkpoints. Only vehicles with Fallujah license plates were permitted to enter and exit the city.
U.S. commanders have been vowing a massive response to pacify Fallujah, one of the most violent cities in the Sunni Triangle, the heartland of the anti-U.S. insurgency north and west of Baghdad and a hotbed of Saddam Hussein loyalists.
A military spokesman said the operation would move steadily, perhaps spanning several days, and might not involve taking the center of the city.
“Our concern is precise. We want to get the guys we are after. We don’t want to go in there with guns blazing,” said Lt. James Vanzant, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp Pendleton, Calif.
A witness reported that a U.S. helicopter struck a residential area in the city early Monday, killing five people. The bombing damaged five houses, said the witness, Mohammed Shawkat. There was no immediate U.S. comment on the report.
After the slayings of the Americans on Wednesday, residents dragged the four bodies through the streets, hanging two of their charred corpses from a bridge in horrifying scenes that showed the depth of anti-U.S. sentiment in the city.
The Marines and Iraqi security forces were poised to enter the city to arrest suspected insurgents, Vanzant said. He would not say when the troops would enter the city.
“The city is surrounded,” Vanzant said. “It’s an extended operation. We want to make a very precise approach to this. … We are looking for the bad guys in town.”
A Marine officer said U.S. forces had a list of targets for raids.
Marine 1st Lt. Eric Knapp said the troops will target the killers of the four Americans as well as rebels who have attacked U.S. forces and Iraqi police in the past month.
“Those people are specially targeted to be captured or killed,” he said.
Marines imposed a 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, warning the 300,000 inhabitants of Fallujah to remain indoors. Forces are using cobra tanks, helicopters and predator unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance.
Two battalions of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corp are included in the operation “” a vital component to the operation, experts said, to avoid unnecessary violence.
“The more we put our U.S. face on things out there we don’t like, the more we’re going to be victims of their retribution,” said Fox News military analyst, retired Marine Lt. Col Bill Cowan. “We need to put on an Iraqi face “¦ whether they like it or not, we’ve got to do it.”
Elements of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force are engaged on a psychological operation, going into the town in Humvees with loudspeakers. “If you belong to any Iraqi security service you must wear your uniform at all times,” said an Arabic-language announcement.
Iraqi police in the city visited mosques, dropping off Arabic leaflets from the U.S. military, telling residents of the curfew. It ordered them not to congregate in groups or carry weapons, even if licensed. It instructed people that if U.S. forces enter their homes, they should gather in one room and if they want to talk to the troops to have their hands up.
U.S. forces are hoping the Iraqis themselves will turn the insurgents in and that Iraqi police will be the ones to arrest and interrogate the suspects, Fox News military experts said. U.S. forces will support the civilian force with helicopters and fighter tanks on the ground in case of massive resistance.
“This is a psychological objective, not a military one” for the U.S. military, said retired Army Maj. Gen. Bob Scales. “Control Fallujah and I think the insurgency will be kept in control.”
The California-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force assumed responsibility for Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division on March 24. The Marines said they intended to take a softer approach with Fallujah residents, hoping to win popular support.
But the Marines have quickly found themselves mired in violence. On March 26, Marines and insurgents fought a lengthy street battle in the city that killed one Marine and five Iraqis.
The same day as the killing of the four U.S. civilians, five Marines were killed when a bomb exploded under their vehicle in a village near Fallujah.
Meanwhile, an eighth U.S. soldier died from wounds sustained in Sunday’s fighting with Shiite militiamen in the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City.
A U.S. soldier and a Marine were also killed in separate guerrilla attacks “” the Marine on Monday in the tense area west of Baghdad and the soldier in the northern city of Kirkuk on Sunday.