6 November, 2004
By Fadel al-Badrani
FALLUJA, Iraq (Reuters) - The fiercest U.S. air and artillery bombardment of Falluja in months has destroyed a hospital, a medical warehouse and dozens of homes overnight, residents say.
Witnesses said U.S. air strikes and shelling lit up the night sky and shook the east and north of the rebel-held city.
A small hospital funded by a Saudi Arabian Islamic charity in the central Nazzal district was reduced to rubble. Only its facade, with a sign reading Nazzal Emergency Hospital, remained intact. Reuters pictures showed blue surgical cloths and empty medicine boxes amid earth and brick ruins.
A nearby compound used by the main Falluja Hospital to store medical supplies was also destroyed, witnesses said.
Hospital officials confirmed on Saturday all its contents were ruined.
More than half of the city's 300,000 people are believed to have fled already. After Friday night's barrage, many of those who had stayed packed their cars with clothes and furniture and streamed out of the Sunni Muslim city's only remaining exit to the northwest.
All other roads have been sealed by U.S. forces poised for an offensive on Falluja and Ramadi, another Sunni city further west, to flush out Islamic militants and Saddam Hussein loyalists they say are entrenched there.
The U.S. military said an air strike after midnight smashed three "barricaded fighting positions" after a series of raids the previous day hit anti-aircraft weapons and an arms cache.
"I left the city two days ago, but my heart is still in Falluja," said Abu Mohammed, who had taken his family to stay with relatives just one km (a half mile) away.
"We are living in terror. How do they think people feel when the bombing starts every time we sit down for Iftar? Do they expect us to say 'welcome'?"
U.S. forces have bombarded Falluja almost daily since the mid-October start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when the faithful break the daily dawn-to-dusk fast with Iftar.
Iraq's interim government warns time is running out for locals to hand over foreign fighters led by al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and allow Iraqi forces and U.S. troops in.
Civilians said on Friday they had found leaflets from U.S. forces warning them to leave the city, 50 km (32 miles) west of Baghdad. Most women and children had long since gone.
Locals said U.S. forces had urged them through loudspeakers to leave for their own safety. A U.S. military spokesman denied this, saying the announcements told residents, among other things, to stay off the streets between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.
The overnight bombardment was so intense that ambulances were unable to venture out, said Ahmad Khalil, a doctor at Falluja Hospital. Teams of volunteers had begun searching the rubble for dead and wounded.
Hospital officials said two corpses were brought in on Saturday. Seven people, among them women and children, also arrived with serious wounds.