NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq — U.S. forces stormed into western districts of Fallujah early Monday, seizing the main city hospital and securing two key bridges over the Euphrates River in what appeared to be the first stage of the long-expected assault on the insurgent stronghold.
An AC-130 gunship raked the city with 40 mm cannon fire as explosions from U.S. artillery lit up the night sky. Intermittent artillery fire blasted southern neighborhoods of Fallujah, and orange fireballs from high explosive airbursts could be seen above the rooftops.
U.S. officials said the toughest fight was yet to come — when American forces enter the main part of the city on the east bank of the river, including the Jolan neighborhood where insurgent defenses are believed the strongest.
The initial attacks on Fallujah began just hours after the Iraqi government declared 60 days of emergency rule throughout most of the country as militants dramatically escalated attacks, killing at least 30 people, including two Americans.
Dr. Salih al-Issawi, the head of Fallujah’s main hospital, said he had asked U.S. officers to allow doctors and ambulances go inside the main part of the city to help the wounded but they refused. There was no confirmation from the Americans.
“The American troops’take over the hospital was not right because they thought that they would halt medical assistance to the resistance,” he said by telephone to a reporter inside the city. “But they did not realize that the hospital does not belong to anybody, especially the resistance.”
The action began after sundown on the outskirts of the city, which has been sealed off by U.S. and Iraqi forces, and the minaret-studded skyline was lit up with huge flashes of light.
Flares were dropped to illuminate targets, and defenders fought back with heavy machine gunfire. Flaming red tracer rounds streaked through the night sky from guerrilla positions inside the city, 40 miles west of Baghdad.
Before the assault began, U.S. commanders warned troops to expect the most brutal urban fighting since the Vietnam War.
Underscoring the instability elsewhere in Iraq, several heavy explosions thundered through the capital even as government spokesman Thair Hassan al-Naqeeb was announcing the state of emergency, which applies throughout the country except for Kurdish-ruled areas in the north.
Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said the state of emergency is a “very powerful message that we are serious” about reining in insurgents before elections set for late January.
“We want to secure the country so elections can be done in a peaceful way and the Iraqi people can participate in the elections freely, without the intimidation by terrorists and by forces who are trying to wreck the political process in Iraq,” he told reporters.
Allawi said nothing in public about the beginning of the attack in Fallujah, although U.S. commanders have said it would be his responsibility to order the storming of the city.
Insurgents, meanwhile, waged a second day of multiple attacks across the restive Sunni Triangle north and west of Baghdad, storming police stations, assassinating government officials and setting off deadly car bombs. About 60 people have been killed and 75 injured in the two days of attacks.
At dawn, armed rebels stormed three police stations in the towns of Haditha and Haqlaniyah, 140 miles northwest of Baghdad, killing 22 policemen. Some were lined up and shot execution-style, according to police and hospital officials.
Three attacks on U.S. convoys in and around Baghdad killed two American soldiers and wounded five others, the military said. Residents reported grenades setting police cars aflame on Haifa Street in the heart of the capital.
A car bomb also exploded near the Baghdad home of Iraq’s finance minister, Adil Abdel-Mahdi, a leading Shiite politician. Abdel-Mahdi and his family were not home at the time, but the U.S. military said the bomb killed one Iraqi bystander and wounded another. A U.S. patrol came under small-arms fire as it responded, wounding one soldier, a statement said.
In a Web posting, the al-Qaida affiliate group of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, believed headquartered in Fallujah, claimed responsibility for the attacks on Haditha and Haqlaniyah.
“In the dawn of this blessed day, the lions of al-Qaida in Iraq faced up to a group of apostates in the proud city of Haditha,” said the statement, which could not be authenticated. “The lions stormed the city’s police directorate and killed everyone there…With this operation, the city has been completely liberated. The lions have been wandering in the city until late today.”
The widespread insurgent attacks seemed aimed at relieving the pressure on Fallujah, where about 10,000 American troops — including two Marine battalions and an Army battalion — were massed for the assault. Two Iraqi brigades also stood by.
The emergency decree lays the groundwork for a severe crackdown in areas where guerrillas operate.
Under the law, all traffic and men between the ages of 15 and 55 were banned from the streets of Fallujah and surrounding areas 24 hours a day.
All members of the Fallujah police and security services were suspended indefinitely. Under the emergency power, all roads into Fallujah and neighboring Ramadi are closed indefinitely.
Government negotiators earlier Sunday reported the failure of last-minute talks for peace even as Allawi had said dialogue with Fallujah leaders was still possible, even if a large-scale military action began.
Allawi, a secular-minded Shiite Muslim, faced strong pressure from within the minority Sunni community to avoid an all-out assault.
“I urge the brother prime minister to reconsider the issue of storming Fallujah and to give another chance for dialogue,” Hatim Jassim, a member of the Iraqi National Council, told Al-Jazeera television.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others have warned that a military offensive could trigger a wave of violence that would sabotage the January elections by alienating the Sunni minority, which forms the core of the insurgency. About 60 percent of Iraq’s 25 million people are Shiite.
The influential Sunni clerical Association of Muslim Scholars has threatened to call a boycott of elections if Fallujah is attacked. A public outcry over civilian casualties prompted the Bush administration to call off a siege in April, after which Fallujah fell under control of radical clerics.
U.S. jets have been pounding the rebel bastion for days, launching its heaviest airstrikes in six months on Saturday — including five 500-pound bombs dropped on insurgent targets — to soften up militants.
U.S. intelligence estimated about 3,000 insurgents have dug in behind defenses and booby traps in Fallujah, a city of about 300,000 which has become a symbol throughout the Islamic world of Iraqi resistance to the U.S.-led coalition.
Sgt. Maj. Carlton W. Kent, the top enlisted Marine in Iraq, told troops the coming battle of Fallujah would be “no different” than the historic fights at Inchon in Korea, the flag-raising victory at Iwo Jima, or the bloody assault to dislodge North Vietnamese from the ancient citadel of Hue they seized in the 1968 Tet Offensive.
“You’re all in the process of making history,” Kent told a crowd of some 2,500 Marines. “This is another Hue city in the making. I have no doubt, if we do get the word, that each and every one of you is going to do what you have always done — kick some butt.”