NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) — U.S. troops backed by
thunderous air and artillery barrages launched a ground offensive
yesterday to seize key insurgent strongholds inside Fallujah, the
city that became Iraq’s major sanctuary for Islamic
extremists who fought Marines to a standstill last April.

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

Hours after starting the offensive, U.S. tanks and Humvees from
the 1st Infantry Division entered the northeastern Askari
neighborhood, the first ground assault into an insurgent

In the northwestern area of the city, U.S. troops advanced
slowly after dusk on the Jolan neighborhood, a warren of alleyways
where Sunni militants have dug in. Artillery, tanks and warplanes
pounded the district’s northern edge, softening the defenses
and trying to set off any bombs or boobytraps planted by the

Marines were visible on rooftops in Jolan. Orange explosions lit
up the district’s palm trees, minarets and dusty roofs, and a
fire burned on the city’s edge, all visible from a U.S. camp
near the city.

Heavy firing continued into the pre-dawn hours today, and
residents reached by satellite telephone reported the constant
drone of warplanes overhead.

U.S. troops cut off electricity to the city, and most private
generators were not working. 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 roamed Fallujah streets throughout the day.
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.”

Just outside the Jolan and Askari neighborhoods, Iraqi troops
deployed with U.S. forces took over a 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” 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

Overall, the main force did not appear to have moved deeply into
Fallujah yesterday, the first full day of the operation. Most U.S.
units appeared to be lined up at the edge of their neighborhoods
with some scouts and perhaps special operators venturing

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 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

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.

Rumsfeld called reports of some Iraqi recruits not showing up to
fight “an isolated problem,” and Casey said the
no-shows “did not have a significant impact” on the

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.
“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

But the Iraqi defense minister, Hazem Shaalan al-Khuzaei, told
Al-Arabiya television that he expected the resistance to crumble

“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.

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

Associated Press 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.

Earlier yesterday, 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

Capt. Jonathan Riley, spokesman for the U.S. Central Command Air
Forces in Qatar, told the AP that an unmanned MQ-1 Predator plane
fired a Hellfire missile at an insurgents’ anti-aircraft
artillery battery in Fallujah, scoring a direct hit.

The Association of Muslim Scholars, a 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.”

Arab leaders were muted in their response to the offensive.
Media attention focused on ailing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat,
which may explain in part why the start of the Fallujah campaign
elicited none of the uproar that met the American attempt to storm
the insurgent stronghold in April.


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