FALLUJAH, Iraq – The battle for Fallujah, the most significant offensive in Iraq since the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein 20 months ago, was in full swing Monday as thousands of U.S. troops swarmed into insurgent-held neighborhoods to begin reclaiming the city building by building.

Backed by 1st Cavalry Division tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, up to 8,000 Marines, U.S. soldiers and Iraqi troops stormed into the Jolan neighborhood in northwest Fallujah and the Askari District on the city’s northeast side, U.S. military leaders said.

The invading force encountered earthen berms laden with homemade bombs, car bombs positioned along deserted streets and booby-trapped doorways. Fierce gunbattles erupted between U.S. troops and insurgents holed up in abandoned buildings and homes.

By Monday evening, American troops had established a firm foothold in northern sections of Fallujah, attacking insurgents in a railway station on the edge of the Jolan district and seizing apartment buildings in the northwest part of the city.

The massive troop movement into the heart of Iraq’s insurgency Monday was preceded by the offensive’s first ground combat Sunday evening, when U.S. troops and Iraqi National Guard commandos seized a hospital on the city’s outskirts and captured 38 people. Four of them were foreign fighters, Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said.

Allawi set the stage for Monday’s ground assault by imposing martial law in Fallujah and Ramadi, another Sunni Muslim insurgent stronghold and the provincial capital of Iraq’s al Anbar province. A curfew was established in both cities that barred civilians from venturing outdoors.

Allawi also closed Baghdad International Airport for 48 hours, shut down Iraq’s borders with Jordan and Syria and disbanded Fallujah’s police and the Fallujah Brigade – created after Marines aborted a major offensive into the city in April.

U.S. military leaders have said they believe up to 3,000 insurgents and foreign fighters are hunkered down in fortifications built into Fallujah’s impoverished warrens of apartments and winding alleyways. U.S. commanders believe a deadly web of mines, booby-trapped buildings and streets lined with car bombs awaits them.

Before troops punched their way into neighborhoods on the north end of the city, AC-130 Spectre gunships eliminated the risk of car bombs by flying over parked cars along city streets and destroying each car.

Marines have said they expect the fighting to mark the most brutal urban combat since the Vietnam War. Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said in Washington on Monday that insurgents holding positions on the city’s outskirts “will probably fall back toward the center of the city, where there will probably be a major confrontation.”

Fallujah’s guerrillas, largely a mix of foreign fighters, Sunni Muslim radicals and Saddam Hussein regime loyalists, put up fierce fighting when Marines launched a major offensive in April. Washington ordered the offensive after the killing and mutilation of four American contractors in the city in late March.

Marines aborted the offensive after Iraqi leaders complained about the devastating toll the assault was taking on Fallujah civilians, an assertion leaders in Washington disputed.

The assault now under way is aimed at destroying rebels in Fallujah, considered the nerve center for the 18-month Iraqi insurgency, before national elections in late January.

In recent weeks, Allawi had been negotiating with Fallujah’s tribal and religious leaders in hopes of averting a major offensive and appeasing Iraq’s minority Sunni Muslim community. The looming assault had been viewed by many Sunni Muslims as a rallying cry for Sunnis to boycott the upcoming elections, a move that could seriously undermine the legitimacy of the balloting.

However, speaking at a press conference in Baghdad, Allawi said further negotiations would have been fruitless. “With a heavy heart, I have concluded that the terrorists and insurgents in Fallujah do not want a political solution.”

Later, Allawi went to Camp Fallujah outside the city and visited some of the estimated 3,000 Iraqi soldiers who are teaming up with Marines and U.S. soldiers in the offensive.

“You have to protect your country by cleaning Fallujah from those terrorist elements,” Allawi exhorted the soldiers. “Those elements are taking Fallujah people as hostages. Fallujah people are suffering from them, and they want to get rid of them.”

One Iraqi soldier told Allawi, “We have to avenge the 49 Iraqi soldiers who got killed in Diyala” province, referring to the recent execution-style killings of Iraqi National Guardsmen near the Iraq-Iran border. “Yes, you have to,” Allawi answered. “This is all in your hands.”

The taking of Fallujah General Hospital and two key bridges into the city Sunday marked the beginning of the operation, Casey said in Washington. Seizing the hospital gave U.S. and Iraqi troops a place to take civilians injured in the fighting.

Early Monday, U.S. fighter jets and AC-130 gunships heavily bombed insurgent targets in the city and its outskirts. Military planes also released leaflets urging civilians to remain in their homes and refrain from offering insurgents shelter. “Their days are numbered,” the leaflets stated.

Up to 100,000 civilians may still be inside the city. The rest of the city’s population of 300,000 fled in recent weeks in anticipation of the assault. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in Washington that large numbers of Iraqi civilians would not be killed, “certainly not by U.S. forces.”

Before U.S. troops launched the push into northern Fallujah, Marines with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment spent the day securing roads leading into the north and establishing a forward medical clinic and command headquarters northwest of the city limits. While securing the forward command center, Marines exchanged fire with insurgents, destroying homes and cars that were source of the gunfire. An estimated 15 insurgents were killed. No Marines were injured.

Marine units also began evacuating civilians. Dozens of cars fled north out the city Monday afternoon. Marines helped transport at least 300 Iraqis out of Fallujah to the nearby village of Sakalawiyeh, where a refugee camp was set up.

Marines from the 3rd Battalion later seized a series of apartment buildings on the northwest edge of town without resistance.

By early Monday evening, U.S. tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles rolled into the Jolan and Askari neighborhoods, accompanied by an estimated 8,000 troops. U.S. troops bombarded suspected insurgent positions and weapons caches with ferocious artillery barrages.

As one Marine unit made its way into the city, it encountered a large berm built by insurgents. Soldiers fired a mine-clearing charge into the berm, exploding several homemade bombs buried inside.

Meanwhile, Marines with the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment took a train station on the north end of Fallujah after a fierce, 90-minute firefight with insurgents.

The U.S. military also announced the first American troop deaths linked to the Fallujah offensive. Two Marines drowned when their bulldozer flipped into the Euphrates River.

Elsewhere in Iraq, insurgents continued a wave of violence that has claimed dozens of lives since Saturday. Monday evening, two car bombs exploded outside Christian churches in Baghdad’s al Doura district, killing three people and injuring 52 more.

(James Janega reported from Fallujah, and Alex Rodriguez from Baghdad. An Iraqi correspondent for the Tribune contributed to this report from Fallujah.)

(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): fallujah

AP-NY-11-08-04 1800EST

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