|Troops Enter Heart Of Fallujah|
November 9, 2004
NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq - U.S. Army and Marine units thrust into the heart of the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah on Tuesday, fighting fierce street battles and conducting house-to-house searches on the second of a major assault to retake the city from Islamic militants.
The U.S. military said the operation was going "smoothly" and reported lighter-than-expected resistance in Jolan, a Sunni-militant held warren of alleyways in northeastern Fallujah where the assault began.
But heavy street clashes were raging in the northern sectors of Fallujah amid fierce bursts of gunfire, residents said. At least two American tanks were engulfed in flames, witnesses said. There was no confirmation of casualties.
A Kiowa helicopter flying over southeast Fallujah took groundfire Tuesday, injuring the pilot, but he managed to return to the U.S. base. By midday, U.S. troops had made their way to the central highway in the heart of the city.
Col. Michael Formica, commander of the 1st Cavalry Brigade, told brigade commanders Tuesday that a security cordon around the city will be tightened to insure insurgents dressed in civilian clothing don't slip out.
"My concern now is only one - not to allow any enemy to escape. As we tighten the noose around him, he will move to escape to fight another day. I do not want these guys to get out of here. I want them killed or captured as they flee," he said.
Overnight 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.
The initial ground assault into Fallujah's northeastern Askari neighborhood and Jolan neighborhood was made by U.S. Army tanks and Humvees. U.S. Marines went up to the edge of the city, secured the area and then armored vehicles crushed the barriers and pushed into the city, with the Marines following.
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.
By nightfall, a civilian living in the center of Fallujah said hundreds of houses had been destroyed.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, 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.
"There aren't going to be large numbers of civilians killed and certainly not by U.S. forces," said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"Innocent civilians in that city have all the guidance they need as to how they can avoid getting into trouble," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference Monday. He referred to a round-the-clock curfew and other emergency measures announced by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
On Monday, 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.
On Monday, Allawi, who gave the green light for the offensive, also announced a round-the-clock curfew in Fallujah and the nearby insurgent stronghold of Ramadi.
In Britain, Iraq's deputy prime minister on Tuesday defended the controversial operation, saying that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis wanted order to be restored to the insurgent stronghold.
"The terrorists are mindless, they are killing our children and trying to destroy our lives and take us back to tyranny," Barham Saleh, who is responsible for national security, told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. "The overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people want this situation to end."
But the drive to retake Fallujah risked alienating further many Iraqis. A prominent Sunni party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, announced it was pulling out its single Cabinet member, Industry Minister Hajim Al-Hassani, from the Iraqi government in protest against the Fallujah assault.
"We are protesting the attack on Fallujah and the injustice that is inflicted on the innocent people of the city," said Mohsen Abdel-Hamid, head of the Iraqi Islamic Party.
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.
On Tuesday, more violence was reported across the country as militants with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades stormed two police stations near the central Iraqi town of Baqouba.
Police returned fire, killing one attacker and wounding 10 other rebels. Hospital officials said 11 policemen and one civilian were wounded in the attacks.
As the main assault began in Fallujah Monday night, militants in Baghdad attacked two churches with car bombs and set off blasts at a hospital, killing at least nine 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.
In Ramadi, five U.S. troops were wounded when Marines shot at and destroyed two suspected car bombs on Monday. Seven insurgents were killed in the clash.