FALLOUJA — As darkness fell, thousands of U.S. troops swept into Fallouja today after Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi ordered the attack and U.S. helicopter gunships and bombers had pummeled the city for much of the day.
Allawi declared a 24-hour curfew in Fallouja starting at 6 p.m. as the majority of the 10,000 troops amassed outside the city began to enter from the North, blasting across the railroad tracks and moving into insurgent held neighborhoods.
All roads into Fallouja and Ramadi were closed; residents prohibited from carrying weapons, and government offices were ordered shut down except for emergency services like hospitals and the fire department
Borders were closed with Jordan and Syria and all commercial flights into the country were canceled for the next two days.
"They think Iraq now is now weak, but I warn them from this platform that hours of seriousness have begun," Allawi said at a press conference in which he detailed the state of emergency declared Sunday. "I will never permit anyone to inflict harm on the Iraqi people, whether they are foreign terrorists or Saddam loyalists."
Almost simultaneously with the attack's commencement, three bombs went off in Baghdad, including a powerful one in front of a church in the south of the city, killing three people and injuring at least 25 more, according to doctors at a Yarmouk hospital.
At a Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said coalition soldiers were coordinating with Iraqi forces to "restore law and order to this troubled area."
"No government can allow terrorists and foreign fighters to use its soil to attack its people and to attack its government, and to intimidate the Iraqi people," Rumsfeld said. "Success in Fallouja will deal a blow to the terrorists in the country, and should move Iraq further away from a future of violence to one of freedom and opportunity for the Iraqi people."
Rumsfeld made no prediction over how long coalition forces would need to regain Fallouja, and he expected stiff resistance from fighters. Though uncertain over how many insurgents exist, Rumsfeld said he could not describe this assault against rebels as the final battle.
The Interim Iraqi government tried to frame the Fallouja fight as a battle between "Iraqis" and "terrorists." In a late afternoon speech rallying Iraqi troops poised to enter Fallouja with the Marines, Allawi repeatedly exhorted them to go after the "terrorists", who were disrupting the country.
But when asked at a news conference how he would deal with any backlash from the Fallouja assault, Allawi refused to acknowledge that Iraqis were among the insurgents, although U.S. and Iraqi experts agree that the vast majority of the rebels are homegrown.
"All the Iraqi people, including the people of Fallouja want us to go ahead and finish the terrorists," Allawi said.
With massive American firepower trained on the city — some 10,000 U.S. troops and 2,000 Iraqi troops are involved in the operation — a victory over insurgents seemed almost inevitable. But whether a victory will 'finish the terrorists' remained far from clear.
It is widely believed that despite the thousands of insurgents still in the city, hundreds if not thousands have already left the area and are preparing to launch attacks throughout the country. Others are in cells elsewhere in Iraq.
Minister of Defense Hazim Shaalan said the government believes insurgents, tracked through intelligence sources, are regrouping outside of Mosul. They also believe some have come toward Baghdad.
The number of insurgents still believed to be in the city ranges widely from a low a couple of thousand to as many as 6,000.
Rubin reported from Baghdad, McDonnell from Fallouja, where he is embedded with U.S. Marines.