IRAQ U.S. ground troops storm into Fallujah

Urban fighting could be the worst since the Vietnam war.
NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) -- Thousands of U.S. Marines and Army troops punched their way into two Fallujah neighborhoods where insurgents are considered the strongest, kicking off a massive assault today that seeks to put an end to half a year of insurgent control of the Sunni Muslim city.
The troops, backed by the 1st Cavalry Division's tanks and armor, swarmed into the city's northwestern Jolan district, the warrenlike historic heart of Fallujah.
At the same time, some 4,000 troops, backed by the 1st Cavalry Division's tanks and armor, went into the northeastern Askari district.
Backed by a barrage from warplanes and artillery, U.S. troops had fought their way into the western outskirts of Fallujah earlier today, seizing a hospital and two bridges over the Euphrates River in the first stage of the major assault on the insurgent stronghold.
First casualties
The U.S. military reported its first casualties of the offensive -- two Marines killed when their bulldozer flipped over into the Euphrates. A military spokesman estimated that 42 insurgents were killed across Fallujah in the opening round of attacks.
The U.S. military said Iraqi troops captured 38 people, including four foreigners, when they swept into the first objective: Fallujah's main hospital, which Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and the U.S. military said was under insurgent control.
Iraqi soldiers stormed through the facility, blasting open doors and pulling handcuffed patients into the halls in search of gunmen.
Green light
Allawi said he had given the green light for international and Iraqi forces to launch the long-awaited offensive against Fallujah, considered the strongest bastion of Iraq's Sunni insurgents. "We are determined to clean Fallujah of terrorists," he said.
Throughout the morning, artillery and mortars pounded targets in Fallujah and on its outskirts, and a U.S. jet swooped low to fire rockets at insurgent positions. An AC-130 gunship raked the city all night long with cannon fire, and before dawn, four 500-pound bombs were dropped, raising orange fireballs over the city's rooftops.
Gained foothold
In the first foray across the river into Fallujah proper, Marines secured an apartment building in the northwestern corner of the city by noon, said Capt. Brian Heatherman, of the 3rd Battalion 1st Marine Regiment.
"The Marines have now gained a foothold in the city," said Heatherman, 32, from Laguna Niguel, Calif.
He said there were some Iraqi casualties as the troops seized the building, where Marines found an improvised bomb hanging above a doorway -- one of the many variety of booby traps they expect to come across in the urban battle.
Meanwhile, militants attacked a Catholic church today in southern Baghdad, setting it ablaze, according to police and eyewitnesses.
A huge explosion at the church, in the southern Doura neighborhood, left about 20 people injured, said a policeman who declined to give his name.
Heavy fighting
Marine commanders have warned the offensive against Fallujah could bring the heaviest urban fighting since the Vietnam war. Some 10,000 U.S. Marines, Army soldiers and Iraqi forces are around Fallujah, where commanders estimate around 3,000 insurgents are dug in. More than half the civilian population of some 300,000 people is believed to have fled already.
U.S. and Iraqi commanders have vowed to stamp out Sunni Muslim guerrillas controlling Fallujah and other cities north and west of Baghdad ahead of vital January elections.
Allawi said that emergency measures would be imposed on Fallujah and Ramadi, another insurgent stronghold nearby, beginning at 6 p.m. Roads and government facilities in the two cities will be closed, all weapons will be banned, Iraq's borders with Syria and Jordan will be closed and Baghdad's international airport will be shut down for 48 hours.
State of emergency
Allawi's government announced Sunday that it was imposing a 60-day state of emergency across Iraq -- except for the Kurdish-run north.
Clerics in Fallujah denounced Iraqi troops' participating in the assault, calling them the "occupiers' lash on their fellow countrymen."
"We swear by God that we will stand against you in the streets, we will enter your houses and we will slaughter you just like sheep," the clerics said in a statement.
The U.S military said insurgents had been in control of Fallujah General Hospital -- on the west bank of the Euphrates -- and were "forcing the doctors there to release propaganda and false information."
It underlined in a statement that when hospitals "are used for military purposes they lose ... protected status."

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