US heading into major urban assault in Iraq
More than 10,000 US forces are poised to attack and occupy the rebel operations base.
Dust-coated US forces are encircling the Iraqi rebel stronghold of Fallujah, awaiting final assault orders, as insurgents dramatically escalated their own attacks elsewhere in the Sunni triangle over the weekend, leaving more than 50 dead.Skip to next paragraph
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American aircraft and artillery bombarded targets in Fallujah as US commanders prepared for a major urban conflict that they compare in scope to the costly but victorious 1968 Vietnam battle for Hue City.
"This town is held by mugs, thugs, murderers, and terrorists," Lt. Gen. John Sattler, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Unit, shouted to marines at a staging ground Sunday. "You know what your mission is. Go out there and get it done."
To deal with the stiffening rebellion - and an expected surge of attacks if US troops storm Fallujah - Iraq's Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi Sunday declared martial law for 60 days across much of the country.
More than 10,000 US troops are poised for the Fallujah fight. US intelligence estimates that up to 3,000 insurgents - with a core of several hundred well-trained foreign fighters waging an anti-American jihad, and led by Al Qaeda affiliate Abu Musab al- Zarqawi - have prepared layers of booby-trapped defenses that make heavy use of suicide car bombs and even entire buildings rigged to explode.
Six battalions of US Marines, backed up by Army tanks and armor and newly trained Iraqi troops, sealed off Fallujah at midday Sunday. Leaflets dropped in the city warned residents to leave by then, if they were to avoid the fight.
"This is the Hue City of our generation," says Lt. Col. Michael Ramos, commander of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, which is expected to play a key role in Fallujah. In Hue in 1968, heavily outnumbered marines reversed one of the North Vietnamese gains, reclaiming the city block by block, in four weeks of combat that left more than 142 marines dead.
"My marines, once they are unleashed, will bring a decisive victory and closure to [the Fallujah] operation," says Colonel Ramos, from Dallas, Texas. "We will be deliberate in our violence against the terrorists and insurgents, and we will be deliberate in our mercy to Iraqi civilians and the innocent."
Political tension is already growing over the expected assault. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on Friday warned that any assault on Fallujah could spark so much violence that elections slated for January could be impossible.
Clerics from Iraq's Sunni minority have vowed to boycott those elections, if US troops enter Fallujah. On Saturday, an open letter to the Iraqi people from 26 Saudi scholars and clerics said armed resistance to US and allied Iraqis is a "legitimate right."
"Fighting the occupiers is a duty for all those who are able," the fatwa, or religious edict read. "It is a jihad to push back the assailants."
It was political fallout over mounting casualties on both sides that caused the White House to stop a Marine offensive last April. That attack was hurriedly put together after four American contractors were killed and mutilated. By contrast, the current buildup has been carefully planned and rehearsed, and top brass estimate that today they are bringing three to five times more "combat power" to the front.