U.S. troops drove into the center of the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah on Tuesday, overpowering small bands of guerrillas with massive firepower in a powerful advance on the second day of a major offensive to retake the insurgent stronghold.
Ten U.S. service members and two Iraqi government troopers have been killed in the operation to capture Fallujah, the U.S. military said Wednesday.
A brief statement said that as of 6:30 p.m. Tuesday local time, the 10 Americans and two Iraqis had been killed "in Operation Al Fajr."
As fighting raged in Fallujah, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi declared a nighttime curfew in Baghdad and its surroundings — the first curfew in the capital for a year — a day after a string of insurgent attacks in the city killed nine Iraqis and wounded more than 80.
Several heavy explosions hit central Baghdad Tuesday after nightfall, followed by the rattle of small arms fire.
In other developments:
Anger over the assault on the mainly Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah grew among Iraq's Sunni minority, and voices abroad — including the United Nations' refugee agency and the Red Cross — expressed fears over civilians' safety.
An influential group of Iraqi Sunni clerics called for a boycott of the election. The vote is being held "over the corpses of those killed in Fallujah," said Harith al-Dhari, director of the Association of Muslim Clerics.
If Sunnis refuse to vote on a large scale, it could wreck the legitimacy of the election, seen as vital in Iraq's move to democracy.
An estimated 6,000 U.S. troops and 2,000 allied Iraqi soldiers invaded the city from the north Monday night in a quick, powerful start to an offensive aimed at re-establishing government control ahead of the elections. The guerrillas fought off a bloody Marine offensive against the city in April.
On Tuesday, heavy street clashes were raging in Fallujah's northern neighborhoods. By midday, U.S. forces had progressed below the east-west highway that bisects the city, which was one of the early objectives of the campaign, CBS News reporter Kirk Spitzer, embedded with one of the American units, said.
The military reported lighter-than-expected resistance in Jolan, a warren of alleyways in northwestern Fallujah where guerillas were believed to be at their strongest.
That could be a sign that insurgents left the city before the operation started or that the troops have not yet reached the center location to which the resistance has fallen back, Pentagon officials said in Washington.
U.S. officers said few civilians were trying to flee the city Tuesday. They said the bulk of the population of 200,000-300,000 left before the fighting and the rest were hunkered down because of a 24-hour curfew. U.S. troops were preventing most people from leaving, except in emergency cases. One funeral procession was allowed out of the city, U.S. officers said.
Before the Monday night attack, the U.S. military reported 42 insurgents killed, while Fallujah doctors reported 12 people dead. But since then, there has not been word of the Iraqi death toll.
U.S. forces cut off electricity to the city. Residents said they were without running water and were worried about food shortages because most shops in the city have been closed for the past two days.
"The north of the city is in flames. I can also see fire and smoke ... Fallujah has become like hell," Fadril al-Badrani, a resident in the center of Fallujah, said Monday night amid a heavy air and artillery barrage. He said hundreds of houses had been destroyed.
Allawi called on Fallujah's fighters to lay down their weapons to spare the city and allow government forces to take control.
The Fallujah campaign has seen five deaths reported by the U.S. military: three troops killed and 14 wounded on Tuesday, and two Marines who died in a bulldozer accident Monday.
In Fallujah's urban battles Tuesday, small bands of guerrillas — fewer than 20 — were engaging U.S. troops, then falling back in the face of overwhelming fire from American tanks, 20mm cannons and heavy machine guns, said Time magazine reporter Michael Ware, embedded with troops. Ware reported that there appeared to be no civilians in the area he was in.
Witnesses reported seeing at least two American tanks engulfed in flames. A Kiowa helicopter flying over southeast Fallujah took groundfire, injuring the pilot, but he managed to return to the U.S. base.
The once constant artillery barrages were halted, since so many troops were inside the city. U.S. and Iraqi forces surrounded a mosque inside the city that was used as arms depot and insurgent meeting point, the BBC reported.
Col. Michael Formica, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division's 2nd Brigade, said Tuesday that a security cordon around the city will be tightened to ensure insurgents dressed in civilian clothing don't slip out.
"As we tighten the noose around (the enemy), he will move to escape to fight another day. I do not want these guys to get out of here. I want them killed or captured as they flee," he said.