send the rebels to hell, shout iraqi troops

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    Thousands of US and Iraqi troops backed by heavy air support and armour have stormed into the Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah.

    It is the second major offensive in seven months to try to recapture the insurgent stronghold, 50 kilometres west of Baghdad.

    After a day of intense air strikes, artillery barrages and tank fire, US marines launched the full-scale assault two hours after sundown.

    But insurgents struck back elsewhere, killing at least 11 people in the biggest wave of bombings in Baghdad in weeks, including attacks on two churches and a hospital.

    Ahead of the Fallujah offensive, F-16 fighters screamed across the sky, dropping bombs that sent up clouds of black smoke.

    When the air attacks eased, artillery opened up, Cobra helicopters fired rockets and gunfire crackled.

    On one edge of the city, between thunderous explosions, a cleric with a booming voice at a distant mosque rallied rebels for what could be the biggest battle since last year's invasion.

    "God is greatest, oh martyrs," he said, telling fighters that waging holy war was an honour. "Rise up mujahideen."

    Doctors say at least 15 civilians have been killed. There was no word on early US casualties.

    Artillery sounded through the night and as dawn broke on Tuesday, smoke could be seen rising over parts of the city.

    Iraq's interim Government and its US backers regard Fallujah and the neighbouring city of Ramadi as the heart of the insurgency gripping the country.

    They see retaking the cities as crucial to restoring peace to allow elections due in January.

    "We are determined to clean Fallujah from the terrorists," interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said in Baghdad.

    He visited Iraqi troops at the main US base near Fallujah a few hours before the assault and said they must free the people "taken hostage" by rebels.

    "Your job is to arrest the killers but if you kill them then let it be," he said, according to a pool report.

    "May they go to hell," shouted the soldiers. "To hell they will go," Dr Allawi replied.

    -Reuters

    Dave R.
 
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