- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 10, 2004

NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq — U.S. troops powered their way into the center of the enemy stronghold of Fallujah yesterday, overwhelming small bands of insurgents with massive force, searching homes along the city’s deserted, narrow passageways and using loudspeakers to try to goad fighters onto the streets.

As of last night, the fighting had killed 10 U.S. troops and two members of the Iraqi security force, the U.S. military announced.

As the offensive moved into a second full day, up to eight attack aircraft — including jets and helicopter gunships — blasted enemy strongholds and raked the streets with rocket, cannon and machine-gun fire ahead of U.S. and Iraqi infantry who were advancing one or two blocks behind.

Small groups of fighters, armed with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machine guns, engaged U.S. troops, then fell back. U.S. troops inspected houses along Fallujah’s streets and ran across adjoining alleyways, mindful of snipers.

In Washington, President Bush, visiting wounded soldiers, called the offensive in Fallujah a necessary blow against terrorists who seek to prevent Iraq from becoming a democracy.

“We’ve got troops in harm’s way in the Fallujah area right now. Our prayers are with the soldiers and their loved ones, as they’re doing the hard work necessary for a free Iraq to emerge,” he said.

A psychological-operations unit broadcast announcements in Arabic meant to draw out gunmen. An Iraqi translator from the group said through a loudspeaker: “Brave terrorists, I am waiting here for the brave terrorists. Come and kill us. Plant small bombs on roadsides. Attention, attention, terrorists of Fallujah.”

Faced with overwhelming force, resistance in Fallujah did not appear as fierce as expected, though the top U.S. commander in Iraq said he still expected “several more days of tough urban fighting” as insurgents fell back toward the southern end of the city, perhaps for a last stand.

Some U.S. military officers estimated that they controlled about a third of the city. Commanders said they had not fully secured the northern half of Fallujah but were well on their way as American and Iraqi troops searched for insurgents.

The move against Fallujah prompted influential Sunni Muslim clerics to call for a boycott of national elections set for January. A widespread boycott among Sunnis could wreck the legitimacy of the elections, seen as vital in Iraq’s move to democracy. U.S. commanders have said the Fallujah invasion is the centerpiece of an attempt to secure insurgent-held areas so voting can be held.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi declared a nighttime curfew in Baghdad and its surroundings — the first in the capital for a year — to prevent insurgents from opening up a “second front” to try to draw U.S. forces away from Fallujah. Clashes erupted in the northern city of Mosul and near the Sunni bastions of Ramadi and Baqouba. Masked terrorists brandished weapons and warned merchants to close their shops.

In Fallujah, U.S. troops were advancing more rapidly than in April, when insurgents fought a force of fewer than 2,000 Marines to a standstill in a three-week siege. It ended with the Americans handing over the city to a local force, which lost control to Islamist terrorists.

This time, the U.S. military has sent up to 15,000 American and Iraqi troops into the battle, backed by tanks, artillery and attack aircraft. More than 24 hours after launching the main attack, U.S. soldiers and Marines had punched through insurgent strongholds in the north and east of Fallujah and reached the major east-west highway that bisects the city.

“The enemy is fighting hard but not to the death,” Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, the commander of the multinational ground force in Iraq, said at a Pentagon press conference relayed by video from Iraq. “There is not a sense that he is staying in particular places. He is continuing to fall back or he dies in those positions.”

Gen. Metz said Iraqi soldiers searched several mosques yesterday and found “lots of munitions and weapons.”

Although capturing or killing the senior enemy leadership is a goal of the operation, Gen. Metz said he thought the most wanted man in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, had escaped Fallujah.

It was not clear how many insurgents stayed in the city for the fight, given months of warnings by U.S. officials and Iraqis that a confrontation was in the offing.

Gen. Metz said troops have captured a very small number of fighters and “imposed significant casualties against the enemy.”

Before the major ground assault that began Monday night, the U.S. military reported 42 insurgents killed. Fallujah doctors reported 12 persons dead.

Other U.S. casualties included two soldiers killed by mortars near Mosul and 11 who died Monday, most of them as terrorists launched a wave of attacks in Baghdad and southwest of Fallujah.

The toll in Fallujah could have been higher. Early yesterday, a helicopter gunship destroyed a multiple rocket launcher aimed at the main American camp outside the city.

“That saved our lives,” Col. Michael Formica, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 2nd Brigade, told the crew. “We have no idea how many soldiers here were saved by your good work.”

U.S. commanders said the operation was running on or ahead of schedule, and Iraqi officials designated an Iraqi general to run the city once resistance is broken.

U.S. officials said few people were attempting to flee the city, either because most civilians already had left or because they were complying with a round-the-clock curfew. A funeral procession, however, was allowed to leave, officials said.

Electricity has been cut off in Fallujah, once a city of 200,000 to 300,000 people. Residents said they were without running water and were worried about food shortages because most shops were closed.

Anger over the assault grew among Iraq’s Sunni minority, and international groups and the Russian government warned that military action could undermine elections in January. The United Nations’ refugee agency expressed fears about civilians’ safety.

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