WASHINGTON (AP) – Defeating the insurgents in Fallujah is critical in the battle for a free Iraq because “one part of the country cannot remain under the rule of assassins,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Monday.

“These are killers. They chop people’s heads off,” he told a Pentagon news conference hours after American and U.S.-trained Iraqi troops launched an assault on Fallujah.

Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said victory in Fallujah would not end the insurgency or eliminate the need for more fierce combat in coming weeks.

“These folks are determined,” Rumsfeld said, referring to the estimated several thousand Saddam Hussein loyalists and Islamic extremists who are believed to be mainstays of the insurgency. He said they were still getting money and recruits from outside Iraq.

An undetermined number of insurgents escaped before the fighting began and will try to set up operations elsewhere in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, said by telephone from Baghdad in a question-and-answer session with Pentagon reporters.

Rumsfeld said the battle for Fallujah, which began Sunday and intensified on Monday, should not be seen as a final showdown with the insurgents, although Fallujah is their main base.

“It’s going to take time,” Rumsfeld said, for enough ordinary Iraqis to reach a “tipping point” and turn on the insurgents.

“It’s a tough business and I think it’s going to take time,” Rumsfeld said.

Some leaders of the insurgency probably slipped out of Fallujah before the fighting began, Myers said,

The defense secretary said the insurgents are criminals, assassins, terrorists and remnants of Saddam’s government, and he said they cannot be allowed to “run roughshod” over the city.

Appearing with Rumsfeld, Myers said there was reason to believe that the insurgents would use innocent civilians as shields, making it more difficult for the attacking U.S. forces.

“There are also indications that they want to fight in a more conventional way,” Myers added without elaborating.

Rumsfeld said he was confident that Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi would not pull the plug on the U.S.-led offensive and that U.S.-trained Iraqi troops would acquit themselves well.

“The decision to go (into Fallujah) included the decision to finish and to finish together,” Rumsfeld said. He noted that circumstances were different last April when U.S. Marines began an offensive in Fallujah only to be ordered to withdraw a few days later.

U.S. officials have said for months that military force alone could not end the insurgency and that ordinary Iraqis would have to decide they wanted to play a bigger role in helping U.S. forces.

Rumsfeld alluded to opinion polls in Iraq that suggest that more people are fed up with the violence and are blaming the insurgents rather than the U.S. forces depicted by some as occupiers.

“I don’t know how many weeks or how many months” it will take to reach a point where the weight of public opinion favors the new Iraqi government instead of the insurgents, he said. “Nobody knows.”

Every U.S. military operation is given a code name, and at Allawi’s request the Fallujah offensive is called “al-Fajr,” which Casey said means “the dawn.” He said it involved between 10,000 and 15,000 American and British troops and an unspecified number of Iraqi troops.

Casey, meanwhile, said he did not expect to ask for additional U.S. troops to help with security prior to the elections in January, but he added that he could not rule it other, either. There currently are about 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, up several thousand from a few weeks ago.

AP-ES-11-08-04 1713EST

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