(AP) NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq – Thousands of U.S. troops, backed by armor and a stunning air barrage, attacked the toughest strongholds of Sunni insurgents in Fallujah on Monday, launching a long-awaited offensive aimed at putting an end to guerrilla control of the Sunni Muslim city.
After nightfall, U.S. troops advanced slowly on the northwestern Jolan neighborhood, a warren of alleyways where Sunni militant fighters have dug in. Artillery, tanks and warplanes pounded the district’s northern edge, softening the defenses and attempting to set off any bombs and boobytraps before troops moved in.
At the same time, another force pushed into the northeastern Askari district, the first large-scale assault into the insurgent-held area of the city, the military said.
Some 5,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers were massed on Fallujah’s northern edge participating in the assault. Iraqi troops were also expected to be involved, but there was no immediate word on their actions.
Before the thrust into the heart of the city, the U.S. military reported its first casualties of the offensive — two Marines killed when their bulldozer flipped over into the Euphrates. A military spokesman estimated that 42 insurgents were killed across Fallujah in bombardments and skirmishes during the day.
AP reporter Edward Harris — embedded with Marines in the desert near the railroad station just outside the city’s northern edge — said U.S. forces hammered the Jolan district with airstrikes and intense tank fire to soften up defenses. The Marines reported that at least initially they did not draw significant fire from insurgents, only a few rocker-propelled grenades that caused no casualties.
Huge orange blasts from artillery shells lit up Jolan, and a large fire burned on the edge of the city.
Earlier Monday, U.S. and Iraqi forces seized two bridges over the Euphrates River and a hospital on Fallujah’s western edge that they said was under insurgents’ control. A team of Marines entered northwestern Fallujah and seized an apartment building.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said he gave the green light for international and Iraqi forces to launch the long-awaited offensive against Fallujah, aimed at re-establishing government control before elections set for January.
“We are determined to clean Fallujah of terrorists,” he told a press conference in Baghdad.
Marine commanders have warned the new offensive could bring the heaviest urban fighting since the Vietnam war. Some 10,000 U.S. Marines, Army soldiers and Iraqi forces are around Fallujah, where commanders estimate around 3,000 insurgents are dug in. More than half the civilian population of some 300,000 people is believed to have fled already.
U.S. commanders have avoided any public estimate on how long it may take to capture Fallujah, where insurgents fought the Marines to a standstill last April in a three-week siege.
Allawi announced Monday he was using emergency powers he was granted the day before to impose a round-the-clock curfew on Fallujah and the nearby town of Ramadi, starting at sundown Monday. All roads into the two cities were be closed, and residents were barred from carrying weapons. Also, he announced the borders with Syria and Jordan were sealed, and Baghdad International Airport was closed for 48 hours.
Before the main assault, Allawi visited the main U.S. base outside Fallujah to rally Iraqi troops.
“The people of Fallujah have been taken hostage … and you need to free them from their grip,” he told the soldiers at the camp, who swarmed around him when he arrived. “Your job is to arrest the killers but if you kill them, then so be it.”
“May they go to hell!” the soldiers shouted, and Allawi replied: “To hell they will go.”
The prelude to the assault was a crushing air and artillery bombardment of the city that built from the night before, though Monday morning and evening then rose to a crescendo by Monday night — with U.S. jets dropping bombs constantly and big guns pounding the city every few minutes with high-explosive shells.
As the main assault began in Fallujah, thunderous explosions could be heard across central Baghdad, some 40 miles to the east. Earlier, insurgents attacked an Orthodox church in the capital and set it ablaze, killing three and wounding 34 people, police said.
Early Monday, U.S. troops surrounded the area of Fallujah General Hospital, just outside the city on the western bank of the Euphrates River. Iraqi forces swept into the facility, blasting open doors and handcuffing patients, who were pulled into the halls in a search for gunmen.
At the hospital, four foreigners, including two Moroccans and two unidentified people, were captured, the U.S. military said.
One main goal for taking the hospital first was likely to control information. The facility was the main source of Iraqi death tolls during the first U.S. siege of Fallujah in April, and U.S. commanders accused doctors there of exaggerating numbers, fueling public outrage that eventually forced the Marines to pull back from the city at that time.
The U.S military said Monday that insurgents controlling the hospital were “forcing the doctors there to release propaganda and false information.”
Hundreds were reported killed in the April siege of Fallujah — and if casualties and destruction are reported high again, Allawi and his U.S. allies run the risk of a new political firestorm ahead of the January elections.
The Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni clerics group that has threatened to boycott elections, condemned the assault on Fallujah, calling it “an illegal and illegitimate action against civilian and innocent people.”
The length and ferocity of the battle depends greatly on whether the bulk of the defenders, believed to be Iraqis from the Fallujah area, decide to risk the destruction of the city or try to slip away in the face of overwhelming force. Foreign jihadis may choose to fight to the end, but it’s unclear how many of them are still in the city.
Another issue is the role of Iraqi forces fighting alongside the Americans. A National Public Radio correspondent embedded with the Marines outside Fallujah reported desertions among the Iraqis. One Iraqi battalion shrunk from over 500 men down to 170 over the past two week — with 255 members quitting over the weekend, the correspondent said.
Clerics in Fallujah denounced Iraqi troops participating in the assault, calling them the “occupiers’ lash on their fellow countrymen.”
“We swear by God that we will stand against you in the streets, we will enter your houses and we will slaughter you just like sheep,” the clerics said in a statement.