US troops tackled Fallujah's last tenacious insurgents yesterday but were still days away from completing major search operations in the city, as the mutilated body of a Caucasian woman was found by marines.
With a convoy carrying aid for thirsty and hungry civilians in the rebel enclave still blocked by the military, US-led forces said that more than 1,200 insurgents had been killed in the assault launched late Monday.
Meanwhile, the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the country's third largest, was bracing for a probable military assault after days of unchecked lawlessness, with clashes erupting between rebels and Iraqi security forces.
As US marines continued their slow, tense search of buildings in Fallujah, a senior officer warned that the operation would continue well into next week; belying the swiftness with which US-led troops first poured in.
"It is probably going to be another four to five days of clearing house to house," said Colonel Mike Shupp. "There is not going to be a stone unturned in the city."
With 25 marines killed, according to US figures, in the battle to take a city that is the symbol of Iraq's protracted insurgency, marine commander Major General Richard Natonski said: "We have killed over 1,200" rebels.
None of the figures can be independently verified.
Iraq's interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi authorized the attack to bring Fallujah to heel, as a lesson to insurgents elsewhere as the pillar, and to bring more stability ahead of key elections planned for January.
On Saturday, national security advisor Qassem Daoud announced that the so-called Operation Fajr (Dawn) was accomplished and "only the malignant pockets remain that we are dealing with through a clean-up operation."
He acknowledged, however, that Iraq's most wanted man, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose supporters had made Fallujah their base, and a top aide had slipped through their fingers.
But US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on a trip to Panama, said that while US troops were present in much of the city, the mission was not over.
"Needless to say there still will be pockets of resistance and areas that will be difficult, so I don't mean to suggest that it is concluded. It's not, to be sure."
Despite being hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, the insurgents in Fallujah have refused to surrender their stronghold without a fierce struggle.
Three marines were killed Saturday in an explosion as they entered a booby-trapped building, while another 13 were wounded in a firefight nearby, a marine officer said. The latest deaths bring to at least 25 the number of US troops who have been killed in the fight for Fallujah. Five Iraqi soldiers have also died.
In the south of the city, where insurgents regrouped over the weekend, the disemboweled body of a blonde-haired Caucasian woman with her legs and arms cut off and throat slit was found Sunday lying on a street.
"It is a female ... missing all four appendages, with a slashed throat and disemboweled, she has been dead for a while but only in this location for a day or two," said a Navy Corps hospital apprentice who had inspected the body.
Two foreign women have been abducted in Iraq and remain missing. One, Teresa Borcz, 54, a Pole, has blonde hair, the other, British aid worker Margaret Hassan, 59, has chestnut-colored hair.
At Fallujah's main hospital, aid from the Iraqi Red Crescent was still waiting as relief workers negotiated with US troops for access to residents, an agency official said.