US Marines punched to the heart of Fallujah yesterday after fierce fighting with guerrillas in Iraq's most rebellious city, a US military source said.
The source gave no details about the advance to the center, the furthest US forces have penetrated in the Sunni Muslim city west of Baghdad in seven months.
A total of 14 Americans have been killed in the past two days across Iraq -- including five in an around Fallujah and nine others killed as guerrillas launched a wave of attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere.
A senior Pentagon official said yesterday the nine were killed Monday southwest of Fallujah and in the capital.
Residents confirmed US-led forces were near the middle of Fallujah. Terrified civilians stayed at home, nerves stretched by the crash of bombs.
As battles raged in Fallujah, insurgents hit back elsewhere with bloody attacks in Baqubah and other cities, in which some 60 people have been killed since Monday night.
A US Marine tank company commander -- part of a US-led force at least 10,000 strong -- said guerrillas were battling hard in Fallujah's northern Jolan district.
"They are putting up a strong fight and I saw many of them on the street I was on," Marine Captain Robert Bodisch said.
A thunderous explosion shook northern Fallujah, witnesses said. Black smoke billowed from the scene.
"There are heavy air strikes everywhere and heavy clashes in the Jolan district," one resident said.
Many families fled the city of 300,000 to escape air raids before the offensive. It is not clear how many remain.
Residents said they had no power and used kerosene lamps at night. They kept to ground floors for safety. Telephones were erratic. Even food shops had been closed for six days.
"My men have reached their designated area 1km inside Fallujah on foot and have liberated one neighborhood," said a senior Iraqi army officer.
Iraqi troops brought nine handcuffed prisoners to a railway station on the northern edge of the Jolan area where US and Iraqi forces are based. They said two of them were Egyptians and one was Syrian. The rest were Iraqis.
The interim Iraqi government and its US backers say foreign Muslim militants led by al-Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are holed up in Fallujah along with Iraqi rebels.
Doctors said at least 15 civilians were killed in Monday's fighting.
The offensive launched after dark on Monday was the second assault in seven months to try to pacify the rebel stronghold.
After a day of air strikes, shelling and tank fire, US troops launched the ground assault two hours after sundown, when Muslims break their daily fast in the month of Ramadan.
Fighters trying to show their muscle after the Fallujah assault bombed two churches, a hospital and other targets in Baghdad, killing 11 people on Monday night.
They also struck at British troops south of the capital, killing a soldier and wounding two with a roadside bomb.
In other news, a curfew will be imposed on Baghdad and surrounding areas from 10:30pm to 4am until further notice, the office of Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said.