big battle raging in faluja

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    A United States tank company commander in Iraq says guerrillas are putting up a strong fight in the Jolan district of north-western Fallujah, a rebel stronghold.

    US troops with crack Iraqi soldiers have surged towards the heart of Fallujah in a hail of explosions and gunfire, on the second day of the largest operation in Iraq since last year's US-led invasion.

    Tank company commander Captain Robert Bodisch says troops are meeting fierce resistance.

    "These people are hardcore," Capt Bodisch told Reuters. "They are putting up a strong fight and I saw many of them on the street I was on.

    "A man pulled out from behind a wall and fired an RPG at my tank. I have to get another tank to go back in there," he added without giving details.

    A high-ranking US officer has told AFP that troops have moved to less than one kilometre from the centre of Fallujah.

    In a two-pronged assault, thousands of US troops poured into the Jolan neighbourhood and the Askari district in the north-east, where they took control of the city's railway station overnight.

    "The offensive is from north to south," the high-ranking officer told AFP.

    The troops "faced resistance at the beginning but there is almost no resistance now", the officer said.

    Fearful of roadside bombs as they stormed the Jolan sector, seen as the heart of rebel activity in the city, US marines smashed through a railway line and ploughed through fields, an AFP reporter embedded with the unit said.

    Knocking down walls, they moved house-to-house through the neighbourhood, spraying rounds of machine gun fire at buildings from where militants fought back with mortars.

    A smattering of specially trained Iraqi forces accompanied the marines, while many more were poised on the outskirts of the city, preparing to enter.

    Iraqi and US officials believe that Iraq's most wanted militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and his followers have turned Fallujah into an operating base.

    They gave the residents an ultimatum to surrender the fighters or face assault but city leaders insist such people are not there.

    Up to 90 per cent of Fallujah's 300,000 residents fled the city to surrounding camps or Baghdad as living conditions deteriorated and fears of the assault grew.

    Doctors inside the besieged city painted a grim picture amid a chronic lack of medical equipment, trained staff, water and electricity.

    -Reuters/AFP

    Dave R.
 
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