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Tuesday, November 09, 2004 - Page updated at 08:10 A.M.

Fiery sky over Fallujah as Marines push into embattled city

By Tom Lasseter and Hannah Allam
Knight Ridder Newspapers

Sgt. Kevin Boyd, left, of Pittsburgh, and other Marines with the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Company prepare yesterday to take up battle positions on the northern lip of Fallujah, the city considered the nerve center of Iraq's insurgent movement.
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FALLUJAH, Iraq — American-led forces bombed and fought their way into the heart of Fallujah yesterday and today, and insurgents fought back with mortar rounds, machine-gun fire and hidden explosives.

U.S. airstrikes and artillery barrages turned the night sky fiery red. Rain turned the ground to mud as an Army, Marine and Iraqi force, part of an estimated 15,000-person army surrounding the city, punched into the insurgent stronghold in armored vehicles.

The invaders fought block by block, house by house. The sides of many homes were caved in, leaving streets littered with rubble. Troops pushed through the darkness, their progress interrupted by enemy sniper fire and machine-gun rounds.

Heavy street fighting was under way in the northern sectors of Fallujah, residents said. At least two U.S. tanks were engulfed in flames, witnesses said. Residents also said a small clinic had been destroyed by bombing. There was no confirmation of casualties.

Masked insurgents roamed Fallujah's streets. One group of four fighters, two of them draped with belts of ammunition, moved through narrow passageways, firing on U.S. forces with small arms and mortars. Mosque loudspeakers blared, "God is great, God is great."

Marines pushed down the west and center of the battle's front, moving toward the neighborhoods of Jolan and Askari, thought to be sanctuaries for foreign fighters. To the east, armored units from the Army's 1st Infantry Division cut off the main road into town.

The U.S. military said 42 insurgents had died early in the fighting. Two Marines were reported killed when their bulldozer overturned and plunged them into the Euphrates River during the early hours of the operation. This morning, the military denied a report that a U.S. helicopter had been shot down with a missile.

At least six Iraqi civilians were killed and more than 16 wounded, according to hospital officials in Fallujah.

Tanks from the 1st Cavalry Division set up defense lines in a circle around Fallujah to block fighters trying to flee along alleyways, tunnels and dirt paths.

"We don't want them to leave Fallujah," said 1st Infantry Lt. Col. Pete Newell. "We want to kill them here."

American warplanes bombed a makeshift cemetery in central Fallujah with strikes so forceful they unearthed the dead and scattered bodies throughout the area, several residents said. They told a Knight Ridder news correspondent in Fallujah that American forces had seized a railway station and damaged three popular mosques in airstrikes and gunbattles.

Hassan Mahmoud, a 28-year-old fighter, said he saw comrades shooting at U.S. surveillance planes. He reported seeing "lots of injured militants being taken to houses" for medical treatment.

Retaking Fallujah is vital to preventing insurgents from blocking Iraq's Sunni minority from voting in national-assembly elections scheduled for Jan. 27, Iraqi and U.S. officials say. But an offensive that kills many civilians could widen the chasm between the U.S.-backed government and an outraged electorate. And even if is Fallujah is won, insurgents could sow disorder elsewhere.

The assault, launched early yesterday, prompted the Iraqi Islamic Party, Iraq's most powerful Sunni Muslim party, to withdraw from the interim government today in protest. The move will likely be a blow to Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

Before moving into Fallujah, 1st Infantry Division soldiers fired a rocket pulling a line studded with a ton of high explosives. Usually used to clear minefields, the rocket was used to clear roadside bombs and created a wall of fire that lit the night sky.

"You know, we're going to destroy this town," Capt. Travis Barreto, 22, said as he and other soldiers advanced in an armored vehicle.

"I hope so," replied the soldier sitting next to him.

Maj. Jim West, a Marine intelligence officer, estimated that there were 5,000 insurgents in Fallujah and nearby Ramadi. Other estimates have ranged from 1,000 to 6,000.

"There is indication that they're coming and going, especially the leadership," West said.

U.S. military officials have said that Jordanian militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi operates his al-Qaida-allied network from the town, although he was believed to have fled. They suspect he's set up factories for car bombs and roadside explosive devices. Al-Zarqawi also has claimed responsibility for the beheadings of several foreign hostages.

Residents who intended to stay in town changed their minds once the offensive began. Skirting curfew, some even threw themselves into the Euphrates to escape. The city once had a population of 300,000, but most had fled earlier.

U.S. troops cut off electricity to the city, and most private generators were not working. The remaining residents said they were without running water and were worried about food shortages.

Residents complained that recent airstrikes and artillery barrages often killed civilians packed in the city's dense neighborhoods. Iraqi outrage at civilian deaths caused the United States to halt an attack on the Sunni Triangle city in April.

Allawi, who said yesterday he had given the green light for the offensive, talked to Iraqi soldiers before the attack began. "The people of Fallujah have been taken hostage ... and you need to free them from their grip," he told Iraqi soldiers who swarmed around him during a visit to the main U.S. base outside the city.

"May they go to hell!" the soldiers shouted, and Allawi replied: "To hell they will go."

U.S. commanders have avoided any public estimate on how long it may take to capture Fallujah, where insurgents battled the Marines to a standstill in April's three-week fight.

The length and ferocity of the battle depend 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.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said insurgents would likely put up a tough fight. "Listen, these folks are determined. These are killers. They chop people's heads off," he said in Washington.

But the Iraqi defense minister, Hazem Shaalan al-Khuzaei, told Al Arabiya television he expected the resistance to crumble quickly. "God willing, it will not be long," he said.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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