U.S. troops powered their way into the center of the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah on Tuesday, overwhelming small bands of guerrillas with massive force, searching homes along the city's deserted, narrow passageways and using loudspeakers to try to goad militants onto the streets. The U.S. military said 10 U.S. service members and two Iraqi government troopers have been killed in the operation.
A brief statement said that as of 6:30 p.m. Tuesday local time, the 10 Americans and two Iraqis had been killed "in Operation Al Fajr." "Due to operational security in order to prevent the anti-Iraqi forces and other terrorist elements from gaining useful battlefield intelligence, there could be delays in announcements of battlefield casualties," the statement said.
The move against Fallujah prompted influential Sunni Muslim clerics to call for a boycott of national elections set for January. A widespread boycott among Sunnis could wreck the legitimacy of the elections, seen as vital in Iraq's move to democracy. U.S. commanders have said the Fallujah invasion is the centerpiece of an attempt to secure insurgent-held areas so voting can be held.
The fighting claimed three American lives — part of a surge in casualties that killed 16 U.S. troops in the past two days across Iraq. U.S. officials said that on Monday, they recorded 130 separate attacks.
Prime Minister Ayad Allawi declared a nighttime curfew in Baghdad and its surroundings — the first in the capital for a year — to prevent insurgents from opening up a "second front" to try to draw American forces away from Fallujah. Clashes erupted in the northern city of Mosul and near the Sunni bastion of Ramadi, explosions were reported in at least two cities and masked militants brandished weapons and warned merchants to close their shops.
In Fallujah, U.S. troops were advancing more rapidly than in April, when insurgents fought a force of fewer than 2,000 Marines to a standstill in a three-week siege. It ended with the Americans handing over the city to a local force, which lost control to Islamic militants.
This time, the U.S. military has sent up to 15,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops into the battle, backed by tanks, artillery and attack aircraft. More than 24 hours after launching the main attack, U.S. soldiers and Marines had punched through insurgent strongholds in the north and east of Fallujah and reached the major east-west highway that bisects the city.
Faced with overwhelming force, resistance in Fallujah did not appear as fierce as expected. Small groups of guerrillas, armed with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machine guns, engaged U.S. troops, then fell back in the face of overwhelming fire.
"The enemy is fighting hard but not to the death," Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, the multinational ground force commander in Iraq, told a Pentagon news conference relayed by video from Iraq. "There is not a sense that he is staying in particular places. He is continuing to fall back or he dies in those positions."
Metz said Iraqi soldiers searched several mosques Tuesday and found "lots of munitions and weapons."
Some U.S. military officers estimated they controlled about a third of the city. Commanders said they had not fully secured the northern half of Fallujah but were well on their way as American and Iraqi troops searched for insurgents.
Although capturing or killing the senior insurgent leadership is a goal of the operation, Metz said he believed the most wanted man in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had escaped Fallujah.
It was unclear how many insurgents stayed in the city for the fight, given months of warnings by U.S. officials and Iraqis that a confrontation was in the offing.
Metz said troops have captured a very small number of insurgent fighters and "imposed significant casualties against the enemy."
Before the major ground assault that began Monday night, the U.S. military reported 42 insurgents killed. Fallujah doctors reported 12 people dead. Since then, there has been no specific information on Iraqi death tolls.
The latest American deaths included three in Fallujah combat on Tuesday, two killed by mortars near Mosul and 11 others who died Monday, most of them as guerrillas launched a wave of attacks in Baghdad and southwest of Fallujah. The 11 deaths were the highest one-day U.S. toll in more than six months.
On Tuesday, U.S. troops searched homes along Fallujah's narrow streets. They ran across adjoining alleyways, mindful of snipers.
A psychological operations unit broadcast announcements in Arabic meant to draw out gunmen. An Iraqi translator from the group said through a loudspeaker: "Brave terrorists, I am waiting here for the brave terrorists. Come and kill us. Plant small bombs on roadsides. Attention, attention, terrorists of Fallujah."
Up to eight attack aircraft — including jets and helicopter gunships — blasted guerrilla strongholds and raked the streets with rocket, cannon and machine-gun fire ahead of U.S. and Iraqi infantry who were advancing only one or two blocks behind the curtain of fire.
Early Tuesday, a helicopter gunship destroyed a multiple rocket launcher aimed at the main American camp outside of Fallujah.
"That saved our lives," Col. Michael Formica, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division's 2nd Brigade, told the crew. "We have no idea how many soldiers here were saved by your good work."
U.S. commanders said the operation was running on or ahead of schedule, and Iraqi officials designated an Iraqi general to run the city once resistance is broken.
However, Metz said he expected "several more days of tough urban fighting." The American command said the insurgents were massing in the southern half of the city, from which U.S. troops were receiving mortar fire. Some U.S. units were reported advancing south of the main highway but not in strength.
Formica said the security cordon around the city will be tightened to ensure insurgents don't slip out.
"My concern now is only one — not to allow any enemy to escape. As we tighten the noose around him, he will move to escape to fight another day. I do not want these guys to get out of here. I want them killed or captured as they flee," Formica said.
U.S. officials said few people were attempting to flee the city, either because most civilians had already left or because they were complying with a round-the-clock curfew. A funeral procession, however, was allowed to leave, officials said.
Electricity has been cut off in Fallujah, once a city of 200,000 to 300,000 people. Residents said they were without running water and were worried about food shortages because most shops were closed.
Anger over the assault grew among Iraq's Sunni minority, and international groups and the Russian government warned that military action could undermine elections in January. The U.N. refugee agency expressed fears over civilians' safety.
The Sunni clerics' Association of Muslim Scholars called for a boycott of the elections. The association's director, Harith al-Dhari, said the Sunnis could not take part in an election held "over the corpses of those killed in Fallujah."
The call is expected to have little resonance within the rival Shiite Muslim community, which forms about 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people. Sunnis make up the core of the insurgency, and U.S. officials have expressed hope that a successful election could convince many Sunnis that they have a future in a democratic Iraq.