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U.S.-Iraqi Force Pushes Into Rebel-Held Fallouja

Times Staff Writers

Ten thousand U.S. troops and more than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers in tanks and on foot attacked this insurgent stronghold Monday night in a long-planned offensive aimed at ending guerrilla control of the city.

House-to-house fighting raged in several Fallouja neighborhoods this morning as Marines pushed into the city under fire from insurgents holed up inside houses.

The northeastern Askari neighborhood shook with explosions as troops blew up cars rigged as bombs.

The attack, expected to be the largest battle since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, began just past nightfall after a daylong barrage of air and artillery strikes.

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The main line of assault was to the north of Fallouja, where two Marine-Army combat teams of more than 3,000 troops each pressed the offensive in a steady, chilling downpour. Other American forces and British troops sealed off paths of retreat.

Marines pushed about a quarter-mile into the Askari neighborhood and encountered heavy resistance as insurgents responded with rockets, mortar fire and rocket-propelled grenades. U.S. forces fought street-to-street under sniper fire.

At a mosque, a cleric called on militants to fight back.

“God is greatest, O martyrs!” he called out through loudspeakers. “Rise up, mujahedin!”

U.S. sniper teams and other advance parties in Fallouja called in air and artillery strikes. Great plumes of smoke rose above the city as it was battered throughout Monday morning and afternoon.

A Reuters reporter in the Jolan district said today that a helicopter was downed by a rocket.

“It turned into a ball of fire and fell,” reporter Fadel Badrani said.

The U.S. military denied the report.

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Waiting Monday for orders to advance farther, Marine Staff Sgt. Dennis Nash said: “The most important thing is that we gained a foothold in Fallouja and we didn’t experience casualties. From here on out, it’s a house-to-house fight.”

There were no comprehensive accounts of either U.S. or insurgent casualties. But the military said two Marines were killed Monday when their bulldozer flipped over and into the Euphrates River near Fallouja.

Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, said there would probably be a “major confrontation” as an estimated 3,000 insurgents fall back into the center of the city in the face of the American push.

Military experts said the battle could last days or weeks. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the purpose of the attack was to tame the city, about 35 miles west of Baghdad, and end all battles there.

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“Every effort has been made to persuade the criminals running roughshod over Fallouja to reach a political solution, but they’ve chosen the path of violence instead,” Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon.

Yet even if the insurgents are defeated in Fallouja, U.S. officials expect rebels to regroup in other cities, perhaps forcing a series of roving battles.

“This will not be the last use of force in Iraq to rid Iraq of the former regime elements and the foreign fighters who do not want Iraq to be successful,” said Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “So there will be other opportunities, maybe not as dramatic and as big as Fallouja, but there will be other opportunities. If there were a silver bullet, we’d have shot that a long time ago.”

The attack on Fallouja was approved by interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who declared a 24-hour curfew in Fallouja starting at 6 p.m. as the majority of the 10,000 U.S. troops who had massed outside the city began to enter, moving across a set of railroad tracks and into insurgent-held neighborhoods.

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All roads into Fallouja and nearby Ramadi were closed and the standing order for American troops was to kill anyone carrying a weapon. Roads to neighboring Jordan and Syria were shut and all commercial flights into the country were canceled for the next two days.

The insurgents “think Iraq is now weak, but I warn them from this platform that hours of seriousness have begun,” Allawi said at a news conference in Baghdad. “I will never permit anyone to inflict harm on the Iraqi people, whether they are foreign terrorists or Saddam loyalists.”

One Fallouja resident, Adnan Mohammed Falluji, 37, an engineer who was reached by phone Monday night, said the bombing had gone on all day with only a 15-minute respite. “They were bombing both sides of the city with airplanes and artillery. Then the tanks started to bomb the center of the city,” he said.

Dr. Hamid Mohammed, speaking from a makeshift clinic that is serving Falloujans after U.S. and Iraqi forces took over Fallouja General Hospital early Monday, said that 15 dead and 20 injured people had been brought to the clinic.

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“There are women and children among them.”

That clinic was bombed this morning by the Americans, several witnesses said. It was unclear whether it was still receiving patients.

Despite being advised to leave the city, up to 150,000 residents may remain in Fallouja. In a visit to Iraqi troops accompanying the Americans on Monday, Allawi urged the soldiers to try to avoid civilian casualties and limit raids to places where anti-government forces are holed up.

He also urged the Iraqi national guardsmen to avenge the deaths of 49 of their colleagues who were executed by insurgents in Baqubah last month.

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Later, a guardsman, Capt. Talib Itbi, 33, a native of Basra, said the Iraqi troops’ goal was simply to stop “these coward terrorists who are trying to destabilize our country. That is all we want in the end.”

Even as Allawi was urging on the troops, powerful Sunni and Shiite Muslim clerics were sending the opposite message. The Sunni Muslim Scholars Assn. and a representative of anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr called on Iraqi soldiers not to fight alongside the Americans and against their fellow countrymen.

Iraqi officials said Monday that additional fighters were still trying to enter the country to join the battle in Fallouja. Brig. Gen. Nadim Shareef, commander of border police for Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, said his forces had apprehended 203 Afghans near the Iraq-Iran border.

“We caught them trying to enter Iraq ... through the Zagros Mountains without any passports,” he said.

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Pentagon strategists described Fallouja as the most stubborn of several rebel strongholds throughout Iraq. It has been a haven for Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant who leads a group that has claimed responsibility for numerous bombings, shootings and a series of beheadings of foreigners.

The U.S. and Iraqi militaries’ experience in Fallouja exemplifies the difficulty of fighting the rebels without enraging ordinary citizens and driving them into the arms of the insurgency.

A smaller-scale effort by Marines to seize control in April was called off after five days, and control of Fallouja was ceded to a local brigade with ties to the insurgency. Since then, the city has been beyond the control of the U.S. military or Baghdad.

This week’s battle began with a mixture of confidence and disappointment for U.S. commanders, whose strategy for stabilizing Iraq is based on training Iraqi army and other forces to take over security in the nation.

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Upon learning that they would form the vanguard of the Fallouja invasion, an undetermined number of Iraqi troops deserted their units before the battle began, Casey, the top U.S. commander, acknowledged. One Iraqi battalion shrank from more than 500 to 170 over the past week, a National Public Radio correspondent who accompanied U.S. forces said.

McDonnell, who is embedded with U.S. forces, reported from Fallouja. Rubin reported from Baghdad and Hendren from Washington.


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