US forces hammered southern Fallujah with renewed airstrikes and artillery yesterday, hitting mortar positions and sniper nests, in preparation for a ground assault on insurgents trapped in this part of the former militant stronghold.
Loud explosions rocked the city throughout the morning as gunfire reverberated across town. Smoke rose above Fallujah as helicopters hovered overhead. Marines were seen perched on rooftops. Many buildings were heavily damaged with few signs of civilians.
In the past 24 hours of fighting, three US troops were killed while another 17 were wounded in Fallujah, the US military said. The number of enemy fighters killed were not available, with US officials saying rebel casualties from airstrikes was difficult to confirm.
US troops were steadily advancing through the city from the northern end, pushing militants slowly into the southern half of Fallujah. With US units positioned to the south and east, and the Euphrates River on the west, insurgents are being squeezed into a corner, the military said.
US troops, on the verge of gaining control of the city, have been fighting pockets of resistance in this former militant stronghold as an Iraqi commander reported the discovery of "hostage slaughterhouses" in which foreign captives had been killed.
Insurgents have sought to open a second front elsewhere in Iraq, mounting attacks outside Fallujah and kidnapping three relatives of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Militants also claimed to have abducted 20 Iraqi National Guard (ING) troops in Fallujah.
The latest kidnappings were part of a surge of attacks outside the city -- an attempt by militants to divert US-Iraqi forces.
Yesterday, a car bomb hit central Baghdad around 11:40am, sending out huge plumes of black smoke over the heart of the capital. Police said the bomb detonated along Saadoun Street, a densely populated commercial area with major hotels housing foreigners. At least one body was seen being pulled from the rubble, as bloodied and burned victims were carried off.
Another car bomb exploded in northern Iraq near a convoy carrying the governor of Kirkuk province, killing one bystander and injuring 14 others. Police said Governor Abdul-Rahman Mustafa, a Kurd, was unharmed.
Early yesterday, al-Jazeera television reported 32 people were killed and about 50 injured in politically motivated violence Wednesday throughout Iraq, but it was unclear if the figures included deaths and injuries in Fallujah.
A day earlier, US warplanes fired on the city's main street and market as well as Jolan, one of several neighborhoods where troops were skirmishing with militants.
In what could be a sign of progress, the Marines began turning over the northern neighborhood of Jolan to Iraqi forces, signaling that Marines consider the area relatively secure. Jolan was considered one of the strongest positions held by militants inside Fallujah.
In one of the most dramatic clashes Wednesday, snipers fired on US and Iraqi troops from the minarets of the Khulafah Al Rashid mosque, the military said. US Marines called in an airstrike, and an F-18 dropped a bomb on the mosque, destroying both minarets
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