U.S. troops pushed into the center of Fallujah Tuesday, fighting their way from house to house and shooting through bands of militants in their drive to recapture the city that has been the center of insurgency since the fall of Saddam Hussein. On the second day of the assault, U.S. Army forces pressed into the city from the east, reaching the center as Marine units drove their way down in two prongs from the north. Fighter bombers and heavy artillery fire cleared the way as the troops advanced.
Some American military officers estimated Tuesday night that a third of the city had been taken. Meanwhile, U.S. officials said 10 American and two Iraqi soldiers had died there since the offensive began. Although some officers reported heavy resistance in some districts, overall the insurgents appeared to have put up less of a coordinated fight than expected.
"We expected a much fiercer reaction," said Maj. Gen. Abdul Qader Mohammed Jassem, head of Iraqi forces in Fallujah and the province's new military governor. He admitted some of the fighters may have already left. "There is movement in and out. It is a vast and difficult area. Some people even swim in and out," he said.
American commanders said they intended to place a tight cordon around the city to prevent fighters from slipping away. Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, in charge of day-to-day U.S.-led military operations in Iraq, said: "I personally believe that some of the senior leaders probably have fled." He added that he believed Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was among those who had left the city. He said the remaining insurgents were fighting in groups of three to six people. "We're a little ahead of schedule," he said. "I think the enemy is fighting hard, but not to the death."
Militants outside Fallujah struck targets across Iraq, with attacks on police stations near Baquba, explosions ringing out every few hours in Baghdad and hundreds of gunmen on the streets of Ramadi.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi imposed an indefinite night curfew on the capital for the first time in a year. Dozens of insurgents are thought to have been killed in Fallujah as well as some civilians, although there has been no independent toll of Iraqi dead.
Gen. Metz said there had been few civilian casualties and that enemy casualties were "significantly higher than I expected." Mohammed Amer, a doctor at a Fallujah clinic, said 12 people had been killed and 17 injured, including a girl age 5 and a boy, 10.
Commanders had expected heavy fighting in Jolan, a northwestern district known to house the most hard-line of the insurgents. "These people are hardcore. They are putting up a strong fight and I saw many of them on the street I was on," Capt. Robert Bodisch, a tank commander, told Reuters. "A man pulled out from behind a wall and fired an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] at my tank. I have to get another tank to go back in there," he said.
But across the city there was less resistance than expected. That may suggest fighters slipped away before the battle began, or that troops have yet to reach the heaviest concentrations of insurgents. By noon yesterday U.S. tanks and armored personnel carriers had fought down from the north to the main road that runs through the city from east to west.
"My concern now is only one -- not to allow any enemy to escape," said Col. Michael Formica, commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division. "I want them killed or captured as they flee."
In Baghdad, Allawi urged the fighters to put down their weapons as he met with leaders from some of the largest Sunni tribes in the area. "The political solution is possible even if military operations are ongoing," said his spokesman, Thaer al-Naquib.
Residents in Fallujah said power and water supplies had been cut and food stocks were low. Tens of thousands of families are thought to still be in the city. Several reports said a medical clinic had been bombed, killing some staff and patients. Sami al-Jumaili, a doctor at the main Fallujah hospital seized by U.S. troops on Sunday night, said he was treating the injured in a private house.
"There is not a single surgeon in Fallujah. We had one ambulance hit by U.S. fire and a doctor wounded," he told Reuters. The U.N. refugee agency said it was "extremely concerned" about the thousands of civilians who had fled the city.