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Fallujah Assault Progresses Slowly, One Block at a Time

By Dexter Filkins and James Glanz

The New York Times -- FALLUJAHH, Iraq

Thousands of U.S. Marines and soldiers swarmed over a railroad embankment on the northern edge of Fallujah on Monday night and early Tuesday, setting off a wild firefight and making their first advances across the deadly streets and twisting alleyways of this rebel-held city.

The move, following weeks of bombings by U.S. airplanes, marked the beginning of the main assault on Fallujah, expected to be the most significant battle since the fall of Baghdad 19 months ago.

Most of the 6,500 U.S. troops and 2,000 Iraqi soldiers went over the embankment at six separate points, military officials said, aiming to clear the city of insurgents one house at a time and eventually take several large public buildings in the heart of the city.

The drive into Fallujah’s downtown came after the interim Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi, gave formal authority to the U.S.-led troops to launch the assault. U.S. and Iraqi officials have said elections planned for the end of January would be imperiled if Fallujah and other cities in the Sunni Muslim heartland remained in the hands of the rebels.

Hundreds or thousands of insurgents met the U.S. attack, sometimes contesting every inch of the advance and sometimes melting back into the darkened houses of the city they have held for more than six months.

Fire from rockets, mortars and assault rifles would lash out at the Americans from seemingly deserted buildings until heavy return fire destroyed them one by one, leaving only smoking ruins. Then the firing would start from another direction.

Amid the blasts and roar of the battle, loudspeakers at mosques throughout the city were blaring, “Prepare for jihad!” and “God is great!” U.S. commanders appeared to avoid striking the mosques.

The number of insurgents in the city is estimated at 3,000, although some guerrillas, terrorist fighters and their leaders escaped the city before the attack. U.S. military officials estimated that out of a usual population of 300,000, from 70 to 90 percent of civilians had fled.

In the Askari and Jeghaifi neighborhoods in the northeastern part of the city, U.S. troops were already seen in the streets by around 8 p.m. Monday, said an insurgent who identified himself as Abu Mustafa in a telephone conversation. He said insurgent forces were staying fluid, moving around the city to reinforce spots as they were attacked by the Americans.

By 1 a.m. Tuesday, U.S. troops assigned to those same northeastern neighborhoods had advanced the farthest in the operation -- about four blocks into the city, military officials said. But some of the units farther to the west, under heavy fire and picking their way through abandoned vehicles, rubble and barbed wire, took hours to advance past a single line of houses.

Seven members of the invading force were reported wounded: four were hurt when their vehicle flipped over, and three more when a mortar shell landed near them. Two Marines drowned when the bulldozer they were driving next to the Euphrates River overturned Monday afternoon.

“They’ll try to pull us into the city,” said Col. Craig Tucker, a Marine who was in charge of a major unit called a regimental combat team. “They’ll win if it’s bloody; we’ll win if we minimize civilian casualties.”