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Iraqi commandos seize Falluja hospital

Allawi declares state of emergency before expected assault

Seen through a night vision camera, troops prepare to enter Falluja's main hospital.
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraqi troops backed by U.S. Marines have seized Falluja's main hospital, the first objective in a push to retake the city from insurgents, hours after Iraq's interim prime minister declared a 60-day state of emergency across most of the nation.

Gunfire and artillery echoed across the town overnight Sunday, but it remained unclear when the bulk of the U.S.-led force outside Falluja would begin moving.

The hospital -- on the western edge of the city -- was taken by the 36th Iraqi Commando Battalion with only minor resistance late Sunday, according to a pool reporter.

U.S. military officials said the hospital needed to be secured so hospital workers could attend to casualties without facing intimidation by insurgents, and to end its use as a source of anti-U.S. propaganda.

In the past, hospital officials have said U.S. airstrikes killed only innocent civilians, a claim the American military disputed.

In Washington, Pentagon officials -- speaking on condition of anonymity -- said taking the hospital was one of the initial objectives of the planned offensive, but would not say whether U.S. and Iraqi forces would push into the city in the coming hours.

The Iraqi commandos moved in aboard Marines trucks escorted by armored vehicles, according to a pool reporter embedded with the contingent.

The Marines secured the area around the hospital but left it to the Iraqis to move inside. At least 50 men of military age were handcuffed after room-to-room searches, but about half of them were later released.

Small-arms fire could be heard close to the hospital after it was seized, and the city was silhouetted with occasional flashes as at least one U.S. warplane circled overhead.

Iraqi and U.S. forces are trying to stabilize the nation in advance of national elections, set for January.

Earlier Sunday, Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi declared a 60-day state of emergency, saying they would implement it "whenever is necessary and wherever is necessary."

Allawi cautioned that Iraqi and U.S. forces "are not going to be easy" with suspected terrorists and insurgents.

"We are going to bring them to justice, and we are going to ensure the safety of the people of Iraq," he said.

Kurdish-ruled areas in northern Iraq are exempt from the state of emergency, Allawi spokesman Thaer Naqib said.

Allawi said the time is up for the insurgents in Falluja.

"We can't wait indefinitely," he said. "We have made our case very clear. We are ready to intervene as far as we can to salvage the people who have been taken hostage by the bunch of terrorists and bandits and insurgents who have been part of the old regime ... and were involved in atrocities when [former Iraqi leader] Saddam [Hussein] was around."

Falluja has been the target of daily artillery and air attacks as Marines and Iraqi forces prepare for their expected assault on the city.

Fleeing residents have pared Falluja's normal population of about 250,000 down to about 50,000 people.

And Marines said they believe there are about 3,000 hard-core insurgents remaining in the Sunni Muslim city.

Bombarding the city

U.S. warplanes, including powerful AC-130 gunships, have bombarded insurgent targets in recent days ahead of the offensive. Several explosions jolted the region early Saturday, with fireballs lighting up the nighttime sky and the sound of AC-130 cannon fire rattling the area. (Full story)

U.S. tanks were also engaged in the northeastern part of Falluja, and artillery was fired at insurgent positions. Machine gun and small-arms fire could be heard as well.

"We're going to start at one end of the city, and we're not going to stop until we get to the other," said Lt. Col. Pete Newell, a battalion commander from the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division.

"If there's anybody left when that happens, we're going to turn around and we're going to go back and finish it."

Marines attacked Falluja in April after four U.S. private security contractors were killed and mutilated. The ensuing battles led to many deaths. The U.S.-led forces established an indigenous Falluja brigade to restore peace to the city, but in the summer, the brigade fell apart and insurgents solidified control there.

The city, which is known as the City of Mosques, will provide dangerous terrain for the thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops, who expect a textbook urban warfare scenario on its wide avenues, narrow streets and blind alleys.

Marines hope to surprise insurgents with speed -- using infantry, tanks and attack helicopters.

Defense Minister Hazem Sha'alan on Sunday lashed out at U.N. chief Kofi Annan for a letter he wrote to leads of states warning of the impact of an offensive, saying the city was being held hostage and calling Iraqi troops "the defenders of democracy."

"Tomorrow, when they run away like rats, we will chase them from house to house, from room to room."

Meanwhile, a captain in the Iraqi army deserted his unit Friday after hearing about plans for the Falluja assault, a U.S. military spokesman said Sunday.

Because the captain received only a "very low-level briefing," the U.S. military was not worried that his desertion posed a security threat, said the spokesman, U.S. Army Capt. Steve Alvarez.

It is believed the captain, a Kurdish company commander from the 5th Battalion of the Iraqi forces, returned home to northern Iraq, Alvarez said.

Sunday violence

At least 32 people were killed Sunday in attacks in Ramadi, Baghdad, Balad, Baquba and Latifiya, officials said.

At least 21 of Sunday's victims were killed in Ramadi in near-simultaneous attacks on three Iraqi police stations, police and hospital officials said. Most of those killed were police officers.

In Baghdad's Karada district Sunday, a car bomb exploded near the home of interim Finance Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, killing a bodyguard. An official with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- of which Mahdi is a member -- said Mahdi was not home at the time of the attack. The council is a 70-member general assembly representing various Islamic movements and scholars.

A second car bomb Sunday killed a bystander and wounded another near Baghdad's Virgin Mary Catholic Church.

In Balad, about 50 miles west of Baghdad, attackers hit a U.S. military convoy Sunday, killing an American soldier with the U.S. Army's 81st Brigade Combat Team, the U.S. military said. The report puts the number of U.S. military killed in the Iraq war at 1,129, including 868 in hostile action, according to the U.S. military.

In Baquba, unknown gunmen killed Iraqi police Col. Abdul Adim Abed and his driver Sunday in the Mualmeen neighborhood, police officials said.

South of Baghdad in Latifiya, insurgents battled Iraqi and coalition forces Sunday -- fighting that killed six civilians and wounded four others.

CNN's Jamie McIntyre, Karl Penhaul, Kianne Sadeq, Cal Perry, Kevin Flower, Nermeen Al-Mufti and Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.

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