FALLUJAH, Iraq—U.S. forces seized a third of Fallujah on Tuesday after fierce overnight fighting and shelling that turned the Sunni Muslim city into a debris-strewn battlefield.
American commanders said they had expected more organized resistance from Islamic extremists holed up in the city, but quickly added that the battle hasn't been won. Even without a coordinated counterattack, the thousands of troops pushing into the heart of Fallujah encountered booby-trapped buildings, snipers and roadside bombs on the second day of their offensive.
U.S. forces were slightly ahead of schedule in reaching their objectives, but "the fight in Fallujah is far from over," Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, the top American ground forces commander in Iraq, told reporters at the Pentagon via video teleconference. "I think we're looking at several more days of tough urban fighting."
Ten U.S. service members and two members of Iraqi security forces had been killed in two days of fighting in Fallujah, the U.S. military announced Tuesday night.
"Enemy casualties, I think, are significantly higher than I expected," Metz said.
Metz said he assumed that Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate of the al-Qaida terrorist network who used Fallujah as a base, had escaped from the city through a cordon of U.S. and Iraqi forces.
He said that an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 insurgents were resisting in bands of three to six fighters and that their leaders were having difficulty coordinating their defenses, in part because U.S. troops were jamming their short-wave radio communications.
"I think the enemy is fighting hard, but not to the death, and I think that they are continuing to fall back," he said.
Attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces continued elsewhere Tuesday, including intense clashes in Ramadi, where insurgents reportedly still controlled the city center. In the northern city of Mosul, a mortar attack killed two U.S. soldiers.
In Baghdad, the Iraqi government imposed a nighttime curfew on the capital and surrounding areas after a string of attacks Monday night and statements from insurgents promising more to come. At least 17 Iraqis died in bombings and other attacks that struck churches, hospitals and government installations.
The curfew would last "until further notice," according to a statement from interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's office.
In Fallujah, insurgents operating in small groups were roaming warrens of streets and rooftops to cherry-pick targets and isolate small groups of American forces, U.S. commanders said.
This reporter, with the Army's 1st Infantry Division in Fallujah, witnessed heavy fighting that rocked several neighborhoods for 13 hours straight. Machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades rained down on units entering from the north. Explosions frequently shook the armored carrier I was in.
"Cities are where people die," said 1st Lt. Edward Iwan of urban combat dangers. "That's where you take most of your casualties. There are 8,000 places to hide."
Insurgent gunmen ran from rooftop to rooftop, taking aim at the armored vehicles below. Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles responded with heavy shelling that rattled the city and engulfed buildings in flames.
"Forfeit! You're just wasting your ammo," Spc. Kelly Licon screamed at fighters shooting mortars. "You've woken up Godzilla."
Insurgents reached by telephone just a day earlier didn't respond to several calls from Knight Ridder on Tuesday. Some phones were disconnected, while others rang with no answer. Across the Fallujah skyline, mosques that typically broadcast the call to prayer and messages to rebels from the minarets were silent.
Dr. Saleh al Issawi, director of Fallujah General Hospital, said in a telephone interview that American forces had removed patients from the building and taken them to other medical centers. Early in the offensive, American-backed Iraqi forces claimed the hospital and briefly detained several staff members.
Al Issawi said he didn't have the latest civilian casualty figures because the roads to the hospital were blocked. Heavy fighting had subsided, but it was still too dangerous to venture outside the hospital, he said.
"We have enough supplies and medicine, but what good is it?" al Issawi said. "No patients can come. The Americans have isolated us from the city."
In rare moments between blasts, soldiers braced for the worst. To keep spirits up, they talked about the dreams they wanted to pursue after the military: open a bodega in Brooklyn, go to college, get married, have children. Exhausted troops nodded off for quick naps; others tore into military rations.
These lulls were interrupted by sporadic gun battles throughout the day. Insurgents detonated roadside bombs that threw shrapnel into the sides of vehicles. Young American soldiers, behind .50-caliber machine guns, responded with long bursts that tore into concrete and flesh.
After taking Fallujah's main road, tanks set up position and fired into the industrial neighborhoods to the south. At one point, a storm of rocket-propelled grenades flew over the road toward the soldiers, shattering walls and windows.
A long row of shops, once home to mechanics and carpenters, lay in ruins. Tin cigarette stands leaned back on their sides, pocked with bullet holes. Soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division set up rooftop positions on the city's eastern side, calling in strikes and trading fire with snipers from all directions.
Long after the day's most ferocious fighting had dwindled, Iraqi government forces arrived to secure a hospital surrounded by American armor. Rolling in on flatbed trucks, the Iraqi troops fired so many shots that American soldiers scrambled for their guns. A corporal yelled that Iraqi security forces were to be identified by special armbands.
"If you see one who doesn't have his, (expletive) hit him," he said.
By mid-morning American forces were in control of Hai al Askiri, or the military district, a now-desolate eastern area once populated by officers from Saddam Hussein's former regime.
Marine Col. Craig Tucker, who has command of the eastern half of the city, said that by Tuesday evening the 1st Infantry Division elements were the most forward in the city. When asked how long the battle could go, he said, "It will end when these terrorists and criminals are killed or they surrender."
At dusk, fighting erupted anew, with insurgent sniper rounds ringing out from north and south of Fallujah's main road. Airstrikes were called in for a mosque where soldiers "counted 16 fighters running in with AKs and RPGs," Iwan said. There were no firm casualty counts after the strikes, but Iwan estimated there were up to 20 dead insurgents.
Staff Sgt. Jason Ward said he spent all Monday night ferrying wounded soldiers for medical treatment. His vehicle alone carried 10 injured soldiers.
"It's been very intense," he said. "For a lot of our younger soldiers, it's overwhelming."
At one point, on top of a large sand-colored house facing the town, Spc. Luis Lopez, 21, found himself behind a wall too tall to rest his M14 sniper rifle on, so he improvised a step from a metal box containing a child's Snoopy sneaker.
On doorways inside, the family that had fled left handwritten verses of the Quran, a tradition intended to keep homes safe. Baby formula was scattered around and a kerosene heater that was probably too big to take was stored in a utility closet. A painting of Mecca, Islam's holiest city, hung on the wall in the front room.
A building a few blocks away shook with fresh explosions that sent ashes falling like snowflakes. Flames shot into the sky.
The radio squawked: "OK, I've got an injury to sergeant ... and I'm unaware if it is a gunshot wound to the groin or a shrapnel wound to the groin."
The soldiers within earshot of the message winced.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Hannah Allam in Baghdad, Jonathan Landay and Dogen Hannah of the Contra Costa Times in Washington contributed to this report. An Iraqi correspondent who contributed from the outskirts of Fallujah is not named for security reasons.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20041109 Fallujah update