NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq – U.S. Army and Marine units roared into the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah through a breach near the railroad station at dawn today, facing lighter-than-expected resistance as they began house-to-house searches in the second day of their drive to retake the city from Islamic militants.
Heavy machine-gun fire crackled from the eastern and central parts of the city and black smoke rose from near a mosque. The military said today’s advance into the northwestern Jolan section was going “smoothly” with minimal collateral damage despite round-the-clock bombardment.
“That’s our guys fighting right now,” said Maj. Clark Watson, with 3rd Battalion 1st Marine Regiment as machine guns jackhammered nearby. “It’s going well; it’s a good day.”
Two Marines were killed when their bulldozer flipped over into the Euphrates river near Fallujah on Monday, and a military spokesman estimated 42 insurgents were killed across the city before the main assault began.
Urban combat holds the highest potential for U.S. casualties – as many as 30 percent by some estimates.
Ten thousand to 15,000 U.S. troops along with a smaller number of Iraqi forces had encircled the city.
They are believed to be up against an insurgent force of about 3,000, a mix of former Saddam Hussein loyalists, Sunni fundamentalists, followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and others. As many as 100,000 of Fallujah’s residents still may remain in the city, under round-the-clock curfew.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said he gave the green light for international and Iraqi forces to launch the long-awaited offensive.
Hours after starting the offensive Monday, U.S. tanks and Humvees from the 1st Infantry Division entered the northeastern Askari neighborhood, the first ground assault into an insurgent bastion.
In the northwestern area of the city, U.S. troops advanced slowly after dusk on the Jolan neighborhood, and by dawn today some Army and Marine personnel were inside the district. Artillery, tanks and warplanes pounded the district’s northern edge, softening the defenses and trying to set off any bombs or booby traps planted by the militants.
By nightfall, a civilian living in the center of Fallujah said hundreds of houses had been destroyed.
U.S. troops cut off electricity to the city Monday, and most private generators were not working. Residents said they were without running water and were worried about food shortages because most shops in the city have been closed for the past two days.
Iraqi troops deployed with U.S. forces took over a train station after the Americans fired on it to drive off insurgents.
The offensive is considered the most important military effort to re-establish government control over Sunni strongholds west of Baghdad before elections in January.
“No government can allow terrorists and foreign fighters to use its soil to attack its people and to attack its government,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in Washington. “If Iraq is to be free and a peaceful society, one part of the country cannot remain under the rule of assassins, terrorists and the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime.”
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, said he expected some of the insurgents to fall back into fighting positions in the middle of the city as U.S. troops progressed, though he acknowledged that some insurgents already had fled.
Rumsfeld said he couldn’t say for sure whether al-Zarqawi, a top insurgent leader who has masterminded many of the attacks and beheadings against Americans, was still in Fallujah.
U.S. Marines of the 1st Division take position on the outskirts of Fallujah, Iraq, on Monday. The U.S. launched an attack against insurgent strongholds on Monday.
Insurgents, using small arms and mortars, launch an attack on U.S. forces in Fallujah on Monday.