Iraqi government declares state of emergency
NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq – U.S. forces stormed into western districts of Fallujah this morning, seizing the main city hospital and securing two key bridges over the Euphrates river in what appeared to be the first stage of the long-expected assault on the insurgent stronghold.
An AC-130 gunship raked the city with 40 mm cannon fire as explosions from U.S. artillery lit up the night sky. Intermittent artillery fire blasted neighborhoods of Fallujah, and orange fireballs from high explosive airbursts could be seen above the rooftops.
U.S. officials said the toughest fight was yet to come – when American forces enter the main part of the city on the east bank of the river, including the Jolan neighborhood where insurgent defenses are believed the strongest.
The initial attacks on Fallujah began just hours after the Iraqi government declared 60 days of emergency rule throughout most of the country as militants dramatically escalated attacks, killing at least 30 people, including two Americans.
Dr. Salih al-Issawi, the head of Fallujah’s main hospital, said he had asked U.S. officers to allow doctors and ambulances go inside the main part of the city to help the wounded but they refused. There was no confirmation from the Americans.
“The American troops’ attempt to take over the hospital was not right because they thought that they would halt medical assistance to the resistance,” he said by telephone to a reporter inside the city. “But they did not realize that the hospital does not belong to anybody, especially the resistance.”
The action began after sundown on the outskirts of the city, which has been sealed off by U.S. and Iraqi forces, and the minaret-studded skyline was lit up with huge flashes of light.
Flares were dropped to illuminate targets, and defenders fought back with heavy machine gunfire. Flaming red tracer rounds streaked through the sky from guerrilla positions inside the city, 40 miles west of Baghdad.
Before the assault began, U.S. commanders warned troops to expect the most brutal urban fighting since the Vietnam War.
Underscoring the instability in Iraq, several heavy explosions thundered through the capital even as government spokesman Thair Hassan al-Naqeeb was announcing the state of emergency throughout the country, except for Kurdish-ruled areas in the north.
Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said the state of emergency is a “very powerful message that we are serious” about reining in insurgents before elections set for late January.
“We want to secure the country so elections can be done in a peaceful way and the Iraqi people can participate in the elections freely, without the intimidation by terrorists and by forces who are trying to wreck the political process in Iraq,” he told reporters.
Allawi said nothing in public about the beginning of the attack in Fallujah, although U.S. commanders have said it would be his responsibility to order the storming of the city.