Battle for Fallujah rages

US forces fight street by street. British soldier dies in attack on Black Watch
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The Independent Online

American troops were engaged in prolonged street fighting with insurgents in Fallujah last night, moving through empty and smashed buildings as they made their way towards the centre of the rebel stronghold. Supported by British forces, up to 15,000 US troops advanced in an offensive expected to involve the most intense fighting that American soldiers have faced since Vietnam.

American troops were engaged in prolonged street fighting with insurgents in Fallujah last night, moving through empty and smashed buildings as they made their way towards the centre of the rebel stronghold. Supported by British forces, up to 15,000 US troops advanced in an offensive expected to involve the most intense fighting that American soldiers have faced since Vietnam.

People inside the city spoke of artillery barrages preceding each advance by US Marines, backed by Iraqi forces. As darkness fell the deserted streets were lit by flares sent up by the military to locate resistance fighters. Silhouettes of tanks and armoured cars could be seen in the distance.

The 850-strong British Black Watch battle group was ordered to cut the insurgents' routes in and out of the city to prevent fighters escaping and supplies getting in. The Ministry of Defence confirmed last night that a Black Watch soldier had been killed and two others wounded by a raodside bomb in central Iraq.

American troops swarmed into the Jolan district in northern Fallujah and Askari in the north-east, pushing resistance fighters towards armoured forces moving in from the south. Jolan, in particular, with its narrow alleys, was seen as a difficult target, and was subjected to intense bombardment from artillery and tanks. However, soon afterwards, US snipers could be seen on rooftops in the district, while Humvees were seen in the roads of Askari.

US troops made repeated appeals through loudspeakers for the insurgents to lay down their arms, but they were followed by calls from clerics in mosques urging the population to join the mujahedin and "defy the invaders".

Fallujah clerics issued a statement which said: "This is our last threat to you. 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 offensive is intended to root out the insurgents - numbering 3,000 according to the Americans- thought to be based in the city, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, their ringleader.

The US has a force of about 15,000 troops, along with Iraqi government forces, for the storming of Fallujah, an operation called for al-Fajr, or "Dawn" in Arabic, vastly outnumbering the resistance whose numbers may be as few as 1,200. It is believed thousands had slipped through the American cordon to carry out attacks elsewhere.

Before the assault began, an AC-130 gunship had raked the city all night long with cannon fire and heavy explosions from US artillery continued well into the morning. The city was pounded all day with air strikes, artillery and mortar fire. Warplanes engaged in more than 20 sorties against the city and at least four 500lb bombs were dropped. Fireballs from high explosive airbursts could be seen above the rooftops.

US and Iraqi government forces captured bridges, the hospital and the railway station, One of the bridges was where the charred remains of four lynched US security contractors were strung up in March.

At the hospital, patients were herded into hallways and handcuffed until troops determined whether there were insurgents inside. About 50 men of mili- tary age were detained, but about half were later released.

Iraq's interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, said: "Iraqi forces entered Fallujah Hospital, capturing four foreigners and killing 38 persons. We do not know whether they are Iraqis or not. They were stationed in the hospital in order to carry out terrorist actions."

Dr Salih al-Issawi, the director of Fallujah Hospital, said he asked US officers to allow doctors and ambulances to go inside the main part of the city to help the wounded, but they refused. He said: "The American troops' attempt to take over the hospital was not right because they thought that they would halt medical assistance to the resistance. But they did not realise that the hospital does not belong to anybody, especially the resistance."

The fighting was seen as the precursor to a much larger scale attack by the Americans, who spent much of yesterday clearing an inner ring of defences put up by the insurgents.

With US forces advancing from the north-west and west sides of the city, commanders said the toughest fight was yet to come.

Communications were intermittent from the city. But Rahim Abbas Ali, a resident who managed to get through on his satellite telephone, spoke of families huddled together in groups in the city centre, listening to the gunfire getting closer and closer. "There has been fighting in the streets, but also air attacks," he said. "There are some mujahedin also with guns and RPGs, but not many. We are all very frightened."

Ahmed Ghanim, a hospital doctor in Fallujah, said 15 people had been killed and 20 wounded in the fighting. A group of men were seen weeping as they buried seven bodies.

The US military reported its first casualties of the offensive - two marines who died when their bulldozer overturned into the Euphrates river.

The push into Fallujah came at the end of another day of widespread violence. Two suicide bombers detonated their vehicles to try to stop US forces advancing in Ramadi.

As the main assault began in Fallujah, explosions could be heard across central Baghdad, some 40 miles to the east. Militants detonated car bombs in quick succession near two churches in southern Baghdad after sundown, killing at least three people and injuring 52 others. A US soldier was killed when his patrol was fired on in eastern Baghdad.

Mr Allawi cleared the way for the assault on Fallujah with a message: "I have no other choice but to resort to extreme measures to protect the Iraqi people from these killers and to liberate residents of Fallujah so they can return to their homes."

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