Iraqi leaders issue state of emergency

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq’s interim government declared a 60-day state of emergency throughout most of the country Sunday as U.S. Marines made final preparations for a ferocious battle in the western rebel stronghold of Fallujah.

Militants increased their attacks for a second day, killing at least 22 policemen in towns northwest of Fallujah and two American soldiers in west Baghdad.

Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said invoking martial law would secure the country before elections in January and prevent insurgents from taking the Fallujah fight to other cities.

Martial law gives the interim government sweeping authority to impose curfews, order house-to-house searches and close off entire cities. The law took effect immediately and covered the entire country except the northern Kurdish region.

“This will send a very powerful message that we are serious,” Allawi said. “We want to secure the country so elections can be done in a peaceful way…”

U.S. forces sealed off Fallujah late Sunday, after the emergency law took effect. Loud explosions and U.S. airstrikes continued to rattle residents. Bombings and a gun battle struck the city’s main hospital, where patients including three pregnant women were moved to another wing of the building, said Wissam al Issawi, secretary to the hospital director.

Loud explosions could be heard in the background as al Issawi described in a phone interview the broken windows, bouncing bullets and terrified patients. He broke off the conversation, saying he was worried U.S. forces were tracking cell-phone calls in order to find targets. He emphasized that no rebels were hiding out in the hospital.

Allawi wouldn’t say whether he had given his approval for U.S.-led forces to begin their offensive in Fallujah.

A U.S. military base near Fallujah was a flurry of movement Sunday. Although a date for the fight hasn’t been publicly announced, speeches given by commanders to their troops made it clear the hour was drawing near.

“This is as pure a fight of good against evil as we’re likely to see in our lifetime,” Marine Col. Craig Tucker told troops. “This enemy is a terrorist. He is a hardened criminal. This is not an insurgency – there is no alternative better future for Iraq that is represented by these bastards.”

The crowd around Tucker responded with “hoo-ah,” the traditional military grunt of approval.

Commanders tried to blend a gung-ho message of wiping out the enemy with cautionary notes about shooting civilians. Or, as Tucker put it, “the dichotomy of executing rapid and precise violence and minimum collateral damage.” Those words drew no response.

“I have never been ready for a fight that is as personal as this one,” said Lt. Col. Pete Newell of the 1st Infantry Division, noting that his battalion has suffered four soldiers killed and 21 wounded.

If fired on from a building, Newell said, the troops were to use the biggest guns at their disposal. He told them they’d never seen the amount of firepower – tank rounds, artillery, .50-caliber machine gun fire, missiles and bombs – that would soon pound Fallujah.

Elsewhere in the city, Fallujah fighters shrugged off Allawi’s announcement of martial law.

“We don’t care about any martial law, just Islamic law,” said Ahmed Mazen, a 27-year-old guerrilla.

Early Sunday morning rebels stormed three police stations in the volatile western Anbar province, killing at least 22 people, according to officials.

In west Baghdad, two American soldiers were killed and five others were injured in separate attacks on their convoys.

Also Sunday, three Diyala province officials were shot to death as they traveled to a funeral for an assassinated colleague. Diyala province is in the heart of the violent “Sunni Triangle” north and west of the capital.

A bomb exploded outside the home of Iraq’s finance minister, Adil Abdel-Mahdi, a leading Shiite politician. Abdel-Mahdi was not home. The attack killed one of his guards and wounded another bystander. A U.S. patrol responding to the scene came under small-arms fire; one soldier was injured.