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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S., Iraqi Troops Launch Assault on Fallujah

NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Backed by a barrage from warplanes and artillery, U.S. troops fought their way into the western outskirts of Fallujah on Monday, seizing a hospital and two bridges over the Euphrates River in the first stage of a major assault on the insurgent stronghold.

The U.S. military estimated that 42 insurgents were killed across Fallujah in the opening round of attacks. Four foreigners, including two Moroccans and two unidentified people, were captured as U.S. and Iraqi forces swept into the first objective: Fallujah's main hospital, which the military and Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi 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.

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.

Allawi initially said 38 people were killed in the hospital seizure, but the U.S. military said no one was killed in the hospital operation. A military spokesman later gave a figure of 42 dead across the city since the Fallujah assault began. The spokesman, First Sergeant Steven Valley, said the situation was "fluid" and information on casualties was difficult to pin down.

Doctors in Fallujah reported 10 people killed and 11 wounded during the bombardment overnight.

The U.S. military reported its first casualties of the offensive -- two Marines killed when their bulldozer flipped over into the Euphrates.

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 225-kilogram bombs were dropped, raising orange fireballs over the city's rooftops.

Commanders said the toughest fight was yet to come: when American forces cross to the east bank of the Euphrates and enter the main part of Fallujah -- including the Jolan neighborhood where insurgent defenses are believed the strongest.

Marine commanders have warned the new offensive 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.

Much depends on whether the bulk of the defenders, believed to be Iraqis from the Fallujah area, decide to risk the destruction of the city or try to slip away in the face of overwhelming force. Foreign jihadis may choose to fight to the end, but it is not clear how many of them are still in the city.

Another issue is the role of Iraqi forces fighting alongside the Americans. A U.S. National Public Radio correspondent embedded with the Marines outside Fallujah reported desertions among the Iraqis. One Iraqi battalion shrunk from over 500 men down to 170 over the past two weeks -- with 255 members quitting over the weekend, the correspondent said.

Clerics in Fallujah denounced Iraqi troops participating in the assault, calling them the "occupiers' lash on their fellow countrymen." A senior aide to firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr urged Iraqi forces not to fight alongside U.S. troops.

In the first foray across the river into Fallujah proper, Marines on Monday morning secured an apartment building in the city's northwest corner, said Captain Brian Heatherman, of the 3rd Battalion 1st Marine Regiment.

Allawi said emergency measures were to be imposed on Fallujah and Ramadi, another insurgent stronghold nearby, beginning at 6 p.m. local time. 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.

Allawi's government announced Sunday that it was imposing a 60-day state of emergency across Iraq -- except for the Kurdish-run north.

One key reason to take the Fallujah hospital early was likely to control information: The facility was the main source of Iraqi death tolls during the first U.S. siege of Fallujah in April, and U.S. commanders accused doctors there of exaggerating numbers.

The U.S military said Monday that insurgents had been in control of Fallujah General Hospital -- located on the west bank of the Euphrates -- and were "forcing the doctors there to release propaganda and false information."

The reports of hundreds of civilians killed in the April siege -- and scenes of soccer fields turned into mass graves for the dead -- generated strong public outrage in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world, prompting George W. Bush's administration to call off the offensive. U.S. officials insisted the numbers were overblown.