NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) — U.S. forces stormed into
western districts of Fallujah early today, 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.

Eston Bond
U.S. Marines of the 1st Division line up for a prayer at their base outside Fallujah, Iraq, Saturday. More than 10,000 U.S. troops have taken positions around the rebel-controlled city of Fallujah. (AP PHOTO)

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 southern 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.

Several hundred Iraqi troops were sent into Fallujah’s
main hospital after U.S. forces sealed off the area. The troops
detained about 50 men of military age inside the hospital, but
about half were later released.

The invaders used special tools, powered by .22 caliber blanks,
to break open door locks. The rifle-like reports echoed through the
facility. Many patients were herded into hallways and handcuffed
until troops determined whether they were insurgents hiding in the
hospital.

Salih al-Issawi, head of the 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 elsewhere in Iraq, several heavy
explosions thundered through the capital even as government
spokesman Thair Hassan al-Naqeeb was announcing the state of
emergency, which applies 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.

Insurgents, meanwhile, waged a second day of multiple attacks
across the restive Sunni Triangle north and west of Baghdad,
storming police stations, assassinating government officials and
setting off deadly car bombs. About 60 people have been killed and
75 injured in the two days of attacks.

At dawn, armed rebels stormed three police stations in Haditha
and Haqlaniyah, 140 miles northwest of Baghdad, killing 22
policemen. Some were lined up and shot execution-style, according
to police and hospital officials.

Three attacks on U.S. convoys in and around Baghdad killed two
American soldiers and wounded five others, the military said.
Residents reported grenades setting police cars aflame on Haifa
Street in the heart of the capital.

A car bomb also exploded near the Baghdad home of Iraq’s
finance minister, Adil Abdel-Mahdi, a leading Shiite politician.
Abdel-Mahdi and his family were not home at the time, but the U.S.
military said the bomb killed one Iraqi bystander and wounded
another. A U.S. patrol came under small-arms fire as it responded,
wounding one soldier, a statement said.

In a Web posting, the al-Qaida affiliate group of Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi, believed headquartered in Fallujah, claimed
responsibility for the attacks on Haditha and Haqlaniyah.

“In the dawn of this blessed day, the lions of al-Qaida in
Iraq faced up to a group of apostates in the proud city of
Haditha,” said the statement, which could not be
authenticated. “The lions stormed the city’s police
directorate and killed everyone there … With this operation, the
city has been completely liberated. The lions have been wandering
in the city until late today.”

The widespread insurgent attacks seemed aimed at relieving the
pressure on Fallujah, where about 10,000 American troops —
including two Marine battalions and an Army battalion — were
massed for the assault. Two Iraqi brigades also stood by.

The emergency decree lays the groundwork for a severe crackdown
in areas where guerrillas operate.

Under the law, all traffic and men between the ages of 15 and 55
were banned from the streets of Fallujah and surrounding areas 24
hours a day.

All members of the Fallujah police and security services were
suspended indefinitely and all roads into Fallujah and neighboring
Ramadi were closed indefinitely.

Government negotiators earlier yesterday reported the failure of
last-minute talks for peace even as Allawi had said dialogue with
Fallujah leaders was still possible, even if a large-scale military
action began.

Allawi, a secular-minded Shiite Muslim, faced strong pressure
from within the minority Sunni community to avoid an all-out
assault.

“I urge the brother prime minister to reconsider the issue
of storming Fallujah and to give another chance for
dialogue,” Hatim Jassim, a member of the Iraqi National
Council, told Al-Jazeera television.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others have warned that a
military offensive could trigger a wave of violence that would
sabotage the January elections by alienating Sunnis, who form the
core of the insurgency. About 60 percent of Iraq’s 25 million
people are Shiite.

The influential Sunni clerical Association of Muslim Scholars
has threatened to call a boycott of elections if Fallujah is
attacked. A public outcry over civilian casualties prompted the
Bush administration to call off a siege in April, after which
Fallujah fell under control of radical clerics.

U.S. jets have been pounding the rebel bastion for days,
launching its heaviest airstrikes in six months on Saturday —
including five 500-pound bombs dropped on insurgent targets —
to soften up militants.

U.S. intelligence estimated about 3,000 insurgents have dug in
behind defenses and booby traps in Fallujah, a city of about
300,000 that has become a symbol throughout the Islamic world of
Iraqi resistance to the U.S.-led coalition.

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