NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq – Thousands of U.S. troops, backed by armorand an air barrage, attacked Sunni insurgents’ toughest strongholdsin Fallujah on Monday, launching a long-awaited offensive aimed atputting an end to guerrilla control of the Sunni Muslim city.
After nightfall, U.S. troops advanced slowly on the northwesternJolan neighborhood, a warren of alleyways where Sunni militantfighters have dug in. Artillery, tanks and warplanes pounded thedistrict’s northern edge, softening the defenses and attempting toset off any bombs and booby traps before troops moved in.
Another force pushed into the northeastern Askari district, thefirst large-scale assault into the insurgent-held area of the city,the military said. U.S. tanks and Humvees from the First InfantryDivision 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 explosionslighting 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 deserton Fallujah’s northern edge participating in the assault. Iraqitroops deployed with them took over a nearby train station afterthe 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 operationhe said was called “al-Fajr,” Arabic for “dawn.” He told reportersin Washington on Monday that up to 15,000 U.S. troops along withIraqi forces were encircling the city.
Two Marines were killed when their bulldozer flipped over intothe Euphrates near Fallujah earlier Monday. A military spokesmanestimated that 42 insurgents were killed across Fallujah inbombardment and skirmishes before the main assault began.
A doctor at a clinic in Fallujah, Mohammed Amer, reported 12people were killed. Seventeen others, including a 5-year-old girland a 10-year-old boy, were wounded, he said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said he gave the green lightfor troops to launch the long-awaited offensive against Fallujah,aimed at re-establishing government control before elections setfor January. He also announced a round-the-clock curfew in Fallujahand another nearby insurgent stronghold, Ramadi, flexing emergencypowers he was granted the day before.
“The people of Fallujah have been taken hostage … and you needto free them from their grip,” he told Iraqi soldiers who swarmedaround him during a visit to the main U.S. base outside Fallujahjust 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 overthe Euphrates River and a hospital on Fallujah’s western edge thatthey said was under insurgents’ control. A team of Marines enterednorthwestern Fallujah and seized an apartment building.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld saidinsurgents would likely put up a tough fight. “Listen, these folksare determined. These are killers. They chop people’s heads off.They’re getting money from around the world. They’re gettingrecruits,” he told reporters.
U.S. commanders have avoided any public estimate on how long itmay take to capture Fallujah, where insurgents fought the Marinesto a standstill last April in a three-week siege.
Commanders have estimated around 3,000 insurgents are barricadedin the city. Casey said that some insurgents managed to slip away,but others “have moved in.” U.S. military officials believe that 20percent of Fallujah’s fighters are foreigners, while the rest areIraqi residents.
Casey said between 50 and 70 percent of the city’s 200,000residents have fled the city. The numbers are in dispute, however,with some putting the population at 300,000. Residents said abouthalf that number left in mid October, but that many drifted backinto the city.
Rumsfeld said, “there’s nobody who knows how many people are inthere,” but predicted “there aren’t going be large numbers ofcivilians killed and certainly not by U.S. forces.”
As the main assault began in Fallujah, thunderous explosionscould be heard across central Baghdad, some 40 miles to the east.Militants detonated car bombs in quick succession near two churchesin southern Baghdad after sundown, killing at least three peopleand injuring 52 others, according to the U.S. military andpolice.
A U.S. soldier was killed when his patrol was fired on ineastern Baghdad, the military said. Southwest of Baghdad, a Britishsoldier was killed in an incident that appeared to involve aroadside bomb, the Ministry of Defense said in London.
The prelude to the Fallujah offensive was a crushing air andartillery bombardment of the city that built from the night before,through Monday morning and afternoon, rising to a crescendo byMonday night.
AP reporter Edward Harris, embedded with the Marines near thetrain station in the desert north of the city, saw U.S. forceshammering Jolan with airstrikes and intense tank fire. The Marinesreported that, at least initially, they did not draw significantfire from insurgents, only a few rocket-propelled grenades thatcaused no casualties.
Throughout the day, masked insurgents roamed the streets ofFallujah. One group of four fighters, two of them draped with beltsof ammunition, moved through narrow streets, firing on U.S. forceswith small arms and mortars. Mosque loudspeakers blared, “God isgreat, 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 andhandcuffing patients who were then pulled into the halls in asearch for gunmen.
Four foreigners, including two Moroccans, were captured at thehospital, the U.S. military said.
One main goal for taking the hospital first was likely tocontrol information. Iraqi death tolls were mostly compile bydoctors there during the April siege of Fallujah, and U.S.commanders accused them of exaggerating numbers and fueling publicoutrage that eventually forced the Marines to pull back from thecity at that time.
The Association of Muslim Scholars condemned the assault onFallujah, calling it “an illegal and illegitimate action againstcivilian and innocent people.”
Asked to comment on the start of the Fallujah invasion, U.N.spokesman Fred Eckhard repeated earlier comments, stating thatSecretary-General Kofi Annan believes force is sometimes necessarybut worries that the invasion could “destabilize the country at acritical point in the preparation for the elections.”
The length and ferocity of the battle depends greatly on whetherthe bulk of the defenders decide to risk the destruction of thecity or try to slip away in the face of overwhelming force. Foreignjihadis may choose to fight to the end, but it’s unclear how manyof them are still in the city.
Another issue is the role of Iraqi forces fighting alongside theAmericans. A National Public Radio correspondent embedded with theMarines outside Fallujah reported desertions among the Iraqis.