U.S. Forces Begin Moving Into Falluja


New York Times

November 8, 2004

FALLUJA, Iraq, Monday, Nov. 8 - Explosions and heavy gunfire thundered through the outskirts of Falluja on Sunday night and early Monday as American soldiers and marines swept toward strategic bridges, hospitals and other objectives in what appeared to be the first stage of a long-expected invasion of the city.

Hours earlier, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, faced with an outbreak of insurgent violence across the country, declared emergency law for 60 days across most of Iraq. The proclamation gave him broad powers that allow him to impose curfews, order house-to-house searches and detain suspected criminals and insurgents.

"We declared it today and we are going to implement it whenever and wherever it is necessary," Dr. Allawi told pool reporters inside the fortified compound that houses the headquarters of the interim Iraqi government. "This will send a very powerful message that we are serious."

Troops were on the move by 9 p.m. to the west and south of Falluja, just across the Euphrates River, and after two hours of steady pounding by American guns, tanks, Bradley armored vehicles, artillery and AC-130 gunships, at least one objective - a hospital less than a mile from downtown Falluja - had been secured by American special forces and the Iraqi 36th commando battalion.

Tracer fire lighted up the sky as the operation began, helicopters crisscrossed the battlefield, and at least one American vehicle was fired upon with a rocket-propelled grenade as American and Iraqi forces converged on the hospital, called Al-Falluja. Shortly before midnight, American forces were exchaning gunfire across a strategic bridge near the hospital with four to five insurgent positions on the other side.

"There has been extensive gunfire going across the river," said the American commander of the special forces operation at the hospital, which officials called a crucial early objective. "Bradleys have been shooting over to the east of us, and there has been extensive machine-gun fire to the southwest of us," the commander said.

Dr. Allawi said he would hold a news conference on Monday to provide more details about the state of emergency. Once it becomes clear what exactly Dr. Allawi wants to put into effect, American-led forces will be deployed to help enforce the law, a senior American military official said on Sunday in an interview in Baghdad. That could include operating more checkpoints and increasing patrols.

Though Dr. Allawi has tried hard to cast himself as a strongman since taking office, Iraqi confidence in the interim government has plummeted in recent months as the insurgency in Falluja and elsewhere has gained in strength and lethality. Dr. Allawi's declaration of emergency law is as much intended to be a show of force in these days of uncertainty as it is to extend to his government and the United States-led forces broader powers to combat the guerrillas. Dr. Allawi said he had imposed the state of emergency only after getting the approval of his cabinet and the office of the president, Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar.

With only three months to go until the country's first democratic elections, American and Iraqi officials are grasping for any tool at their command to bring the insurgency under control. Guerrillas staged brazen attacks on Sunday that left at least 37 people dead across the country, showing they could seize the initiative even as American-led forces geared up for their major offensive in Falluja and the neighboring city of Ramadi.

At dawn, insurgents armed with bombs and Kalashnikov rifles raided three police stations and killed at least 21 people in the far west of rebellious Anbar Province, which encompasses those two volatile cities, said Col. Adnan Abdul-Rahman, an Interior Ministry spokesman. In an attack south of Baghdad, he said, guerrillas gunned down three officials from Diyala Province as those officials were driving to the funeral of a colleague who had been assassinated.

Insurgents dressed as police officers abducted a dozen Iraqi National Guardsmen on their way home to the southern holy city of Najaf and murdered them all, The Associated Press reported, citing an official in a prominent Shiite political party. In a similar attack last month, guerrillas in police uniform stopped three minibuses carrying 49 freshly trained Iraqi army soldiers who were going on leave. The guerrillas gunned down the soldiers, most with shots to their heads as they kneeled or lay on the ground.

Several powerful explosions shook the capital on Sunday afternoon. One came from a car bomb that detonated near the downtown home of the finance minister, Adil Abdel-Mehdi, killing one of his guards and shattering storefronts along the street, said Haithem al-Hassani, an aide in the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite political party to which Mr. Abdel-Mehdi belongs. A suicide car bomb near a Catholic church killed an Iraqi bystander and wounded a second, while two others in the western Baghdad area aimed at separate military convoys killed two American soldiers and wounded five others, the military said.

That brought to at least 1,125 the number of American troops who have died in the war.

The wave of attacks came a day after insurgents launched coordinated bomb and mortar attacks in Samarra and the surrounding area, killing at least 30 people, many of them Iraqi police officers. Those strikes demonstrated that a major American-led offensive last month in Samarra, a "no go" zone for the Americans during much of the summer, had failed to rid the city of insurgents or secure key parts of town. The senior American military official said that a "resurgence" of the insurgency had taken place because there was "a lag in providing sufficient Iraqi police."

"The challenge with police has been an ongoing one," he said.

On Sunday, American troops began enforcing a round-the-clock curfew aimed at keeping all Iraqis off the streets of Samarra.

Before the move into Falluja, about 10,000 American troops, mostly marines, amassed outside the city. Early Sunday and again Sunday night, American forces continued heavy aerial bombardments and artillery shelling of parts of Falluja, with explosions lighting up the night sky. The attacks were intended to weaken the defenses that the guerrillas had built up, the senior military official said.

Edward Wong provided reporting from Baghdad for this article. Iraqi employees of The New York Times also contributed reporting.