Published on Monday, November 8, 2004 by Reuters
U.S. Barrage Hits Iraq's Falluja Before Offensive
by Michael Georgy
NEAR FALLUJA, Iraq - U.S. planes and artillery fiercely bombarded Falluja and troops probed rebel defenses on Monday in a prelude to a full-scale ground offensive on Iraq's toughest insurgent bastion.
This reporter witnessed about eight air strikes within 20 minutes. Explosions from the artillery fire boomed out every minute or so as plumes of smoke rose from the city.
U.S.-led troops backed by tanks and aircraft also battled guerrillas around the Sunni Muslim city west of Baghdad, moving to forward positions ahead of an expected attack.
Al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi called on Muslims to take up arms against America. "Oh people, the war has begun and the call for jihad (holy war) has been made," he said in a statement posted on a Web site often used by Islamist militants.
Zarqawi's appeal did not mention Falluja by name. The U.S. military says fighters loyal to him are holed up in the city along with Iraqi insurgents loyal to Saddam Hussein.
Guerrillas hit back in Baghdad, where a suicide bomber blew up his red Opel car near a U.S. convoy on the main airport road, killing at least three people, witnesses said.
A Reuters photographer saw U.S. soldiers taking three bodies from a white four-wheel-drive vehicle wrecked in the blast and loading them on stretchers into a military ambulance. The U.S. military had no word on casualties.
A police source said earlier that at least two Iraqis had been killed, one of them a woman. Bystanders said the white vehicle had carried officials and foreign security guards.
Iraq's interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi declared 60 days of emergency rule on Sunday to rein in an insurgency that threatens planned nationwide elections in January and said retaking Falluja could not be delayed much longer.
An AC-130 gunship struck Falluja with cannon fire and machineguns and a heavy bomb dropped in the northwest sent up a column of smoke. Smoke also billowed from a western area.
U.S. forces gathered on two sides of the city where they say 1,000 to 6,000 rebels and foreign fighters are entrenched.
Iraqi and U.S. troops seized Falluja's main hospital, blindfolding several people and kicking down doors but not firing a shot. Before the hospital's telephone lines were cut, staff said several patients and workers were detained. MASKED GUERRILLAS
Inside the city, masked guerrillas roamed empty streets with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Reuters Television footage showed one man in the western Jolan district firing a grenade launcher at an unidentified target.
Men wept as they buried seven white-shrouded bodies, some of them fighters, in a narrow trench in Falluja's makeshift graveyard in a former soccer stadium, the footage showed.
Heavy fighting erupted on the city's eastern and western fringes, including near a bridge over the Euphrates river.
Witnesses in Falluja said the Americans were using amphibious vehicles to try to cross the river but were coming under heavy fire from guerrillas entrenched in the city.
"These insurgents are going to get a lot more than they bargained for," said U.S. Gunnery Sergeant Christopher Garza.
Guerrillas in other Iraqi cities and towns have stepped up attacks to show their muscle, killing at least 60 people in weekend violence that mostly targeted the security forces.
Zarqawi's group claimed responsibility for most of the assaults, including those that killed 34 people and wounded 49 in the restive city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, on Saturday.
U.S. planes bombed targets in the Jubairiya area just north of Samarra on Monday, killing one person and wounding four, police and hospital officials said.
U.S. and Iraqi forces stormed Samarra in early October to clear out insurgents in what was seen at the time as a pilot operation for larger assaults in Falluja and Ramadi, but Saturday's violence showed the city is far from pacified.
Allawi said emergency law measures could be imposed anywhere in Iraq, except for Kurdistan in the north, to ensure security before the Jan. 27 elections President Bush says will be a cornerstone in building a democratic Iraq.
Additional reporting by Fadel al-Badrani in Falluja, Sabah al-Bazee in Samarra, Omar Anwar in Baghdad and Dubai bureau
© Copyright 2004 Reuters Ltd