Troops battle way into Falluja centerNEAR FALLUJA, Iraq American troops battled their way into the center of the insurgent stronghold of Falluja on Tuesday, overwhelming small bands of guerrillas with massive force, searching homes along the city's deserted, narrow passageways and using loudspeakers to try to goad militants onto the streets.
The Pentagon said at least 10 American and two Iraqi soldiers had died since the offensive began Monday night.
Many of the insurgent leaders in the besieged city were likely to have fled before the American-led offensive and have been carrying out devastating bombings and ambushes elsewhere in Iraq that have left scores dead since the weekend, according to American military officials, a mid-level guerrilla fighter and Western security contractors in Baghdad.
Among the insurgent leaders likely to have escaped is the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most wanted man by the Americans. Zarqawi's group is believed to be responsible for attacks that have killed hundreds in more than a year, including the videotaped beheadings of several foreigners.
Before the offensive, some military officials said he could be operating out of Falluja, but that no longer seems to be the case.
"All of the senior Zarqawi leadership has left the Falluja city into the surrounding province, leaving the fighting up to the locals and foreign fighters," said one military official in Baghdad who tracks intelligence reports closely.
The absence of insurgent leaders would explain why the defense of Falluja seemed to lack military cohesiveness, U.S. military officials said. Though some troops were engaged in fierce house-to-house combat, several Marine commanders on the ground said they had been surprised by the relative lack of resistance from the guerrillas.
The move against Falluja prompted influential Sunni clerics to call for a boycott of national elections set for January. A widespread boycott among Sunnis could wreck the legitimacy of the elections, which are seen as vital in Iraq's move to democracy. (Page 4)
By early Wednesday, most of the six battalions that punched through the northern barricades at the start of the assault had swept south to the main highway running through the city.
Even in the northwest Jolan neighborhood, scene of the some of the fiercest fighting in April, when the Marines first tried a massive invasion, American commanders said they had encountered less resistance than they expected.
In a telephone interview, a mid-level insurgent leader who gave his name as Abu Khalid said mujahedeen leaders had decided two days before the offensive to flee the city and leave only half of the insurgency's full force behind to fight the American-led troops.
There was no firm official death toll. The U.S. military command in Baghdad said 10 members of the U.S.-led coalition had been killed by Tuesday evening, but they would not say whether all 10 were Americans. They also would not say which other countries were represented in the U.S.-led force, which comprises at least 10,000 soldiers.
Two members of the U.S.-trained Iraqi security force had been killed in Falluja as of Tuesday evening, U.S. military officials said.
On Monday there were at least 11 U.S. deaths across the country, including two in Falluja. The day's loss was among the highest for a single day in Iraq since last spring, when the insurgency escalated and the American authorities pulled marines out of Falluja.
Lieutenant General Thomas Metz, the senior American commander for the Falluja operation, said he was pleased that U.S. casualties so far had been limited to about a dozen. He would not be more specific, saying any number he gave would be quickly out of date, and did not say whether the dozen included wounded as well as killed in action.
Metz said insurgent casualties had been "significantly higher than I expected." Most of the rebel force, estimated at between 2,000 and 3,000, was "fighting hard but not to the death," he said.
Casualty reports, particularly in a combat zone like Falluja, sometimes are slow and imprecise because of the chaotic conditions.
After sunset on Tuesday U.S. tanks and armored personnel carriers in the northern part of Falluja came under fierce assault from rebels firing rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 rifles.
Residents said explosions echoed in the night, but it appeared that most large-scale fighting had eased.
Some U.S. tanks were seen pulling back from central areas of the city for the night. Others remained in place.
"I think we are looking at several more days of tough urban fighting," Metz said.
Residents said a U.S. air strike had hit a clinic in a central district, killing some medical staff members and patients.
A 9-year-old boy was severely wounded by shrapnel in the abdomen when his home was bombarded by U.S. jets overnight.
His parents were unable to get him to hospital and he bled to death. They buried him their garden, they said.
As battles raged in Falluja, insurgents hit back elsewhere with attacks on police stations in Baquba and Baghdad, fighting in Ramadi and a mortar attack in the northern city of Mosul.
Earlier in the day, residents reached by telephone in Ramadi said there was no sign of U.S. troops in the center of the city, which was in the hands of gunmen armed with Kalashnikov rifles, heavy machine guns and shoulder-fired rockets.
Smoke was seen rising over the city, as U.S. jets and attack helicopters flew overhead. American forces had not reached the heart of the city, but they had been seen near the mayor's office, residents said.
But in Baquba, the official in charge of the main morgue denied earlier reports that 45 people had been killed in attacks claimed by al-Zarqawi. He said he had not dealt with any dead from the attacks.
The interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, used emergency powers he activated on Sunday to impose an indefinite curfew on Baghdad from 10:30 p.m. to 4 a.m. every night.
Many families had fled the city of 300,000 to escape air raids before the offensive. The U.S. military said about 150,000 residents had taken refuge outside Falluja.
Residents said they had no power and used kerosene lamps at night. They stay on ground floors for safety. Telephones are erratic and food shops have been closed for six days.
Iraqi troops took nine handcuffed prisoners to a railway station on the northern edge of the Jolan area where U.S. and Iraqi forces are based. They said two of them were Egyptians and one was Syrian. The rest were Iraqis.
A suspected car bomb outside an Iraqi National Guard base near Kirkuk killed three people and wounded two. In Samarra, a senior local government official was assassinated, the police said.
Sami al-Jumaili, a doctor at the main Falluja hospital who escaped arrest when it was taken on Monday, said the city was running out of supplies and only a few clinics remained open.
"There is not a single surgeon in Falluja. We had one ambulance hit by U.S. fire and a doctor wounded. There are scores of injured civilians in their homes whom we can't move.
"A 13-year-old child just died in my hands," he said by telephone from a house where he had gone to help the wounded.
The government sees Falluja and its sister city of Ramadi as rebel havens that must be retaken before January elections. But leading Sunni clerics on Tuesday urged Iraqis to boycott the election because of the treatment of Falluja.
Defense experts believe that while U.S. forces have the muscle to win the battle of Falluja, victory still may not deal a lasting blow to the insurgency in Iraq. "It may not take long to capture the city, but nothing will have been resolved. It will be a symbolic victory," said a French military strategist, Jean-Louis Dufour.
In Ramadi, hundreds of armed insurgents took up positions Tuesday in the center of Ramadi. Fierce clashes erupted to the northwest of the city and explosions rocked a nearby U.S. base, the police and witnesses said.
American soldiers clashed with insurgents after nightfall in Parawana, a small town 110 kilometers, or 70 miles, west of Baghdad, according to Lieutenant Safaa al-Jumaili.
Meanwhile, strong explosions hit an American base in eastern Ramadi, said a resident Ismail Issawi who lives close to the base. It is not clear what caused the explosions.