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Minor resistance as hospital seized

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FALLUJA, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraqi soldiers backed by U.S. Marines have staged a key raid, seizing Falluja's main hospital on the western outskirts of the Sunni Triangle city.

The seizure is seen as the first step in preparing the groundwork for an expected massive assault to retake Falluja from as many as 5,000 insurgents.

There was only minor resistance when the hospital was seized late Sunday, according to a pool report, which gave details of the fighting.

After the hospital was secured, insurgents peppered U.S. and Iraqi forces with sporadic incoming fire.

When Iraqi commandos raised the Iraqi flag at the hospital, the insurgents began an unrelenting barrage, firing rocket-propelled grenades, small arms and mortars.

Marines and Iraqi forces returned fire with Hellfire missiles from Cobra gunships, artillery, and bombs from aircraft. The sounds of M-16s, heavy machine guns and grenades crackled. M1-A1 tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles have been in action.

There was remarkably little damage to the hospital despite the heavy fighting. Other buildings suspected of being used by the insurgents have collapsed under the barrage of U.S. fire and others are on fire.

In Washington, Pentagon officials told CNN the hospital was one of the initial objectives of the planned offensive.

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

In the past, hospital officials claimed that U.S. air strikes killed only innocent civilians -- something the U.S. military disputed.

The U.S. military, in a statement issued Monday, said Iraqi commandos "quickly and skillfully secured the Falluja General Hospital at about 10:45 p.m." in what is described as a "complex special forces operation."

After the operation, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Forces' 4th Civil Affairs Group "brought in a medical assessment team and medical supplies provided by the World Health Organization and the Iraqi interim government."

The military said hospitals "are recognized as protected structures; however, when they are used for military purposes they lose that protected status."

During the operation, at least 50 men of military age were handcuffed after room-to-room searches, but about half of them were later released.

CNN's Jamie McIntyre, Karl Penhaul, Jane Arraf, Kevin Flower, Arwa Damon, Cal Perry and Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.

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