Fallujah assault 'disciplined and precise'

<>US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said today he did not foresee large numbers of civilian casualties during the US-led assault to take the rebel-held city of Fallujah. "There aren't going to be large numbers of civilians killed, certainly not by US forces," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference, adding that no one knew how many civilians remained in the city. <>

US marines stormed an area considered the rebel heartland of Fallujah overnight and seized control of the Iraqi city's train station, a marine officer told AFP. Rumsfeld said gaining control of Fallujah was necessary to ensure a peaceful Iraq.

"If Iraq is to be free and a peaceful society, one part of the country cannot remain under the rule of assassins, terrorists and the remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime," he told the briefing.

"Every effort has been made to persuade the criminals running roughshod over Fallujah to reach a political solution. But they've chosen the path violence instead."

Insurgents, using small arms and mortars, launch
an attack on marines at Fallujah

"This is an important time in the history of a new Iraq," Rumsfeld said.<>

"Success in Fallujah will deal a blow to the terrorists in the country and should move Iraq further away from a future of violence to one of freedom and opportunity for the Iraqi people."

The assault on the city by a combined force of some 10,000 US and 2,000 Iraqi troops, codenamed Operation Phantom, faces an insurgent force that at one point was estimated to exceed 3,000 fighters, a US defence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allwai, who gave the go ahead for the assault, ordered an indefinite curfew in the city from 6pm (local time) in Fallujah.

"There is no confusion, if you're on the street, you're a bad guy. Ninety per cent of the civilian population has left," said the official.

That would leave about 30,000 civilians still in the city, which at its peak had a population of between 250,000 and 350,000 people.

US forces seized the city's main hospital as its first objective in order to provide medical care during the operation, but also in the expectation that the presence of embedded reporters at the hospital will prevent inflated reporting of civilian casualties.

A marine unit entered the Jolan district in the north-west of Fallujah, said Major Todd Desgrosseilliers, an executive officer with the marines, adding that a separate unit seized the nearby railway station.

"The US forces are disciplined," Rumsfeld said. "They are well led. They're well-trained. They are using precision. And they have rules of engagement that are appropriate to an urban environment."

There is no accurate count of the number of civilian casualties in Iraq since the start of the conflict. Academics and peace activists have estimated the civilian toll at between 14,000 and 16,000.

Eight killed in Baghdad church and hospital bombings

Car bombs at two Baghdad churches and outside a hospital treating the victims of those attacks killed at least eight people and wounded dozens overnight as a wave of blasts struck the Iraqi capital.

A car bomb exploded outside St George's Catholic church in southern Baghdad just before 6.30pm (0230 AEDT), followed minutes later by a second outside St Matthew's church.

Victims from both blasts, some carried by friends or relatives in torn and bloodstained clothes, were rushed to Yarmouk hospital.

A doctor said at least three people had been killed and 40 injured.

A few hours later, a suicide car bomber ploughed into four police cars parked outside the hospital entrance, killing at least five policemen, police said.

Several more explosions echoed across the city later in the night, but there was no immediate word on casualties.

Also overnight, three people were killed in a suicide car bomb attack on the road.

Rebels fighting Iraq's interim government and its US backers have stepped up attacks around the country since US forces began building up for their assault on Fallujah, the epicentre of the insurgency.

Iraq's Christian minority has also been targeted. Five churches were hit in a string of bombings in October that seemed designed to intimidate the Christian community, already shaken by a series of attacks that killed several people in August.

Iraq's 650,000 Christians, mostly Chaldeans, Assyrians and Catholics, comprise about three percent of the population.


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