11/08/2004, 00.00
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US, Iraqi forces enter Fallujah, take hospital and two bridges

Fallujah (AsiaNews/Afp) – US and Iraqi forces rolled into the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah on Monday, taking a hospital and two bridges without a fight as US warplanes struck suspected rebel targets around the city in overnight raids. Iraqi forces from the 36th commando battalion entered the hospital without firing a shot, blindfolding some people and kicking down some doors.

Some 20,000 US and Iraqi forces had gathered around Fallujah amid mounting expectations of a major offensive to wrest the city, believed to be the nerve centre of Iraq's bloody insurgency, from the grip of rebels.

Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who on Sunday declared a state of emergency to combat spiralling violence, has vowed to crush the insurgency ahead of January elections by force if necessary and has set his sights on Fallujah, which is believed to house followers of Iraq's most wanted militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The prime minister has issued an ultimatum to the city to surrender its rebel fighters or face attack, but Fallujah leaders insist that men like Zarqawi do not live there.

The assault on Fallujah and Mr Allawi's declaration of state of emergency, which will grant his government sweeping powers to impose order, aim to quell the insurgency before elections due in January. Mr Allawi said the emergency measures were a message to insurgents of his determination to root them out. The state of emergency, scheduled to last for 60 days, applied for the whole country except for the northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, his spokesman Thaer Naqib said.

Under a state of emergency, Iraqi authorities have powers allowing them to impose curfews, ban meetings and bug communications. Critics express fears that the move risks to echo the authoritarian rule of toppled president Saddam Hussein's regime. "We are going to implement it [emergency] whenever and wherever is necessary. This will send a very powerful message that we are serious," said Mr Allawi. "We want elections to take place."

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