Troops Storm Fallujah in Major Assault

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Thousands of U.S. troops, backed by armor and a stunning air barrage, attacked Sunni insurgents' toughest strongholds in Fallujah on Monday, launching a long-awaited offensive aimed at putting an end to guerrilla control of the Sunni Muslim city.

After nightfall, U.S. troops advanced slowly on the northwestern Jolan neighborhood, a warren of alleyways where Sunni militant fighters have dug in. Artillery, tanks and warplanes pounded the district's northern edge, softening the defenses and attempting to set off any bombs and boobytraps before troops moved in.

At the same time, another force pushed into the northeastern Askari district, the first large-scale assault into the insurgent-held area of the city, the military said. U.S. tanks and Humvees from the 1st Infantry Division could be seen inside Askari.

Marines were visible on rooftops inside Jolan. This reporter, located at a U.S. camp near the city, saw orange explosions lighting up the district's palm trees, minarets and dusty roofs, and a fire burning on the city's edge.

Some 5,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers were massed in the desert on Fallujah's northern edge participating in the assault. Iraqi troops deployed with them took over a nearby train station after the Americans fired on it to drive off fighters.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, predicted a "major confrontation" on the streets of Fallujah in the operation he said was called "al-Fajr," Arabic for "dawn." He told reporters in Washington on Monday that up to 15,000 U.S. troops along with Iraqi forces were encircling the city.

Two Marines were killed when their bulldozer flipped over into the Euphrates near Fallujah earlier Monday. A military spokesman estimated that 42 insurgents were killed across Fallujah in bombardment and skirmishes before the main assault began.

A doctor at a clinic in Fallujah, Mohammed Amer, reported 12 people were killed. Seventeen others, including a 5-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy, were wounded he said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said he gave the green light for troops to launch the long-awaited offensive against Fallujah, aimed at re-establishing government control before elections set for January. He also announced a round-the-clock curfew in Fallujah and another nearby insurgent stronghold, Ramadi, flexing emergency powers he was granted the day before.

"The people of Fallujah have been taken hostage ... and you need to free them from their grip," he told Iraqi soldiers who swarmed around him during a visit to the main U.S. base outside Fallujah just before the attack began.

"May they go to hell!" the soldiers shouted, and Allawi replied: "To hell they will go."

Earlier Monday, U.S. and Iraqi forces seized two bridges over the Euphrates River and a hospital on Fallujah's western edge that they said was under insurgents' control. A team of Marines entered northwestern Fallujah and seized an apartment building.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said insurgents would likely put up a tough fight. "Listen these folks are determined. These are killers. They chop people's heads off. They're getting money from around the world. They're getting recruits," he told reporters.

U.S. commanders have avoided any public estimate on how long it may take to capture Fallujah, where insurgents fought the Marines to a standstill last April in a three-week siege.

Commanders have estimated around 3,000 insurgents are barricaded in the city. Casey said that some insurgents managed to slip away, but others "have moved in." U.S. military officials believe that 20 percent of Fallujah's fighters are foreigners, while the rest are Iraqi residents.

Casey said between 50 and 70 percent of the city's 200,000 residents have fled the city. The numbers are in dispute, however, with some putting the population at 300,000. Residents said about half that number left in mid October, but that many drifted back into the city.

Rumsfeld said "there's nobody who knows how many people are in there," but predicted "there aren't going be large numbers of civilians killed and certainly not by U.S. forces."

As the main assault began in Fallujah, thunderous explosions could be heard across central Baghdad, some 40 miles to the east. Militants detonated car bombs in quick succession near two churches in southern Baghdad after sundown, killing at least three people and injuring 52 others, according to the U.S. military and police.

A U.S. soldier was killed when his patrol was fired on in eastern Baghdad, the military said. Southwest of Baghdad, a British soldier was killed in an incident that appeared to involve a roadside bomb, the Ministry of Defense said in London.

The prelude to the Fallujah offensive was a crushing air and artillery bombardment of the city that built from the night before, through Monday morning and afternoon then rose to a crescendo by Monday night — with U.S. jets dropping bombs constantly and big guns pounding the city every few minutes with high-explosive shells.

AP reporter Edward Harris, embedded with the Marines near the train station in the desert north of the city, saw U.S. forces hammering Jolan with airstrikes and intense tank fire. The Marines reported that at least initially they did not draw significant fire from insurgents, only a few rocket-propelled grenades that caused no casualties.

Throughout the day, masked insurgents roamed the streets of Fallujah. One group of four fighters, two of them draped with belts of ammunition, moved through narrow streets, firing on U.S. forces with small arms and mortars. Mosque loudspeakers blared, "God is great, God is great."

Early Monday, U.S. troops surrounded Fallujah General Hospital, just outside the city on the western bank of the Euphrates River. Iraqi forces swept into the facility, blasting open doors and handcuffing patients, who were pulled into the halls in a search for gunmen.

Four foreigners, including two Moroccans, were captured at the hospital, the U.S. military said.

One main goal for taking the hospital first was likely to control information. Doctors there were the main source of Iraqi death tolls during the April siege of Fallujah, and U.S. commanders accused them of exaggerating numbers and fueling public outrage that eventually forced the Marines to pull back from the city at that time.

Hundreds were reported killed in the April siege of Fallujah — and if casualties and destruction are reported high again, Allawi and his U.S. allies run the risk of a new political firestorm ahead of the January elections.

The Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni clerics group that has threatened to boycott elections, condemned the assault on Fallujah, calling it "an illegal and illegitimate action against civilian and innocent people."

Asked to comment on the start of the Fallujah invasion, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard repeated earlier comments that Secretary-General Kofi Annan (news - web sites) believes force is sometimes necessary but worries that the invasion could "destabilize the country at a critical point in the preparation for the elections."

The length and ferocity of the battle depends greatly on whether the bulk of the defenders decide to risk the destruction of the city or try to slip away in the face of overwhelming force. Foreign jihadis may choose to fight to the end, but it's unclear how many of them are still in the city.

Another issue is the role of Iraqi forces fighting alongside the Americans. A National Public Radio correspondent embedded with the Marines outside Fallujah reported desertions among the Iraqis — with 255 members of a 500-man Iraqi battalion quitting over the weekend, the correspondent said.