U.S. forces press offensive in insurgent-held districts of Fallujah
NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq- U.S. Army and Marine units roared into the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah through a breach near the railroad station at dawn Tuesday, facing lighter-than-expected resistance as they began house-to-house searches in the second day of their drive to retake the city from Islamic militants.
Heavy machine gun fire crackled from the eastern and central parts of the city and black smoke rose from near a mosque. The military said the advance into the northwestern Jolan section was going “smoothly” with minimal collateral damage despite round-the-clock bombardment.
“That’s our guys fighting right now,” said Maj. Clark Watson, with 3rd Battalion 1st Marine Regiment, as machine guns jackhammered nearby. “It’s going well, it’s a good day.”
Overnight Tuesday the skies over Fallujah lit up with flashes of air and artillery barrages as American forces laid siege to the city that had become the major sanctuary for Islamic extremists who fought Marines to a standstill last April.
A U.S. military spokesman estimated that 42 insurgents were killed across the city in bombardment and skirmishes before the main assault began Monday. Two Marines were killed when their bulldozer flipped over into the Euphrates near Fallujah.
U.S. troops, backed by tanks and Humvees, had advance on the city slowly from two sides, the northeastern Askari neighborhood and the Jolan neighborhood, a warren of alleyways where Sunni militants have dug in.
Just to the north of Jolan, Iraqi troops deployed with U.S. forces took over the strategic train station, opening the breach that allowed the Army and Marines to penetrate toward the city center.
Artillery, tanks and warplanes had pounded the district’s northern edge overnight, softening the defenses and trying to set off any bombs or boobytraps planted by the militants.
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.
A U.S. jet fired an air-to-ground missile at a building late Monday from which U.S. and Iraqi forces had taken fire, the U.S. command said. The building was destroyed.
U.S. troops cut off electricity to the city, and most private generators were not working – either because their owners wanted to conserve fuel or the wires had been damaged by explosions.
Residents said they were without running water and were worried about food shortages because most shops in the city have been closed for the past two days.
Masked insurgents had roamed Fallujah streets throughout the day Monday. One group of four fighters, two of them draped with belts of ammunition, moved through narrow passageways, firing on U.S. forces with small arms and mortars. Mosque loudspeakers blared, “God is great, God is great.”
By nightfall a civilian living in the center of Fallujah said hundreds of houses had been destroyed.
“Every minute, hundreds of bombs and shells are exploding,” Fadril al-Badrani said in an interview. “The north of the city is in flames. I can also see fire and smoke … Fallujah has become like hell.”
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, predicted a “major confrontation” in the operation he said was called “al-Fajr,” Arabic for “dawn.” He told reporters in Washington that 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. troops along with a smaller number of Iraqi forces were encircling the city.
The offensive is considered the most important military effort to re-establish government control over Sunni strongholds west of Baghdad before elections in January.
“One part of the country cannot remain under the rule of assassins … and the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said. He predicted “there aren’t going be large numbers of civilians killed and certainly not by U.S. forces.”
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.
About 3,000 insurgents were barricaded in Fallujah, U.S. commanders have estimated. Casey said some insurgents slipped away but others “have moved in.” U.S. military officials believe 20 percent of Fallujah’s fighters are foreigners, who are believed to be followers of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Casey said 50 to 70 percent of the city’s 200,000 residents have fled. The numbers are in dispute, however, with some putting the population at 300,000. Residents said about half that number left in October, but many drifted back.
Some 5,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers were massed in the desert on Fallujah’s northern edge. They were joined by 2,000 to 4,000 Iraqi troops.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who gave the green light for the offensive, also announced a round-the-clock curfew in Fallujah and another nearby insurgent stronghold, Ramadi.
“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.
“May they go to hell!” the soldiers shouted, and Allawi replied: “To hell they will go.”
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. 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 fighters may choose to fight to the end, but it’s unclear how many of them are in the city.
Rumsfeld said insurgents would likely put up a tough fight.
But the Iraqi defense minister, Hazem Shaalan al-Khuzaei, told Al-Arabiya television that he expected the resistance to crumble quickly.
“God willing, it will not be long; it will take a very short period of time,” he said, adding that the insurgents might use the civilians as human shields.
As the main assault began in Fallujah, thunderous explosions could be heard across Baghdad, some 40 miles to the east. Militants attacked two churches with car bombs and set off blasts at a hospital, killing at least six people and injuring about 80 others, officials said.
A U.S. soldier was killed when his patrol was fired on in Baghdad, the military said. Southwest of the capital, a British soldier died in an apparent roadside bombing.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press correspondents Edward Harris in Fallujah; and Tini Tran, Mariam Fam, Katarina Kratovac and Maggie Michael in Baghdad.