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US heading into major urban assault in Iraq

More than 10,000 US forces are poised to attack and occupy the rebel operations base.

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Marines entering Fallujah are prepared to treat every vehicle and building as a potential bomb. A weekend report in the London Times, from inside Fallujah, quotes insurgent commanders claiming that they have rigged 118 car bombs, and have 300 volunteer foreign suicide bombers lined up to take on advancing American units.

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The Times reported that trenches have already been dug in Fallujah's cemeteries, "in preparation for hurried burials of 'martyrs' in white shrouds."

"Never send a marine where you can send a round," Capt. Gil Juarez advised his Light Armored Reconnaissance company, as final preparations got under way. "The enemy is crafty. We just have to be methodical, with techniques that work. Put steel on the target. We need not panic in the face of the enemy."

"You have to adhere forcefully to the rules of engagement," Captain Juarez told his armor platoon and team leaders. The rules, he said, are designed to strike only insurgent targets, not civilians.

"This is all one piece of a larger picture," says Juarez, from San Diego. "If we have a lance corporal [messing] that up, we could win the battle and lose the war. You in this room have to keep your marines on that."

Already, the battle of Fallujah has been waged since mid-summer, when US aircraft began nightly air strikes of suspect targets linked to Mr. Zarqawi's network. Residents have described numerous civilian casualties and damage, including destruction of the city's most popular kebab restaurant.

Insurgents ignore feint attack

The military estimates that just 50,000 people remain. Among them are insurgents who barely reacted overnight Friday, when scores of armored vehicles launched a feint operation to probe the insurgent response.

"It looks like our little fake attack didn't work," said a machine gunner, waiting patiently in the dark in the back of an armored vehicle, just a few hundred yards north of the city limit.

Shortly thereafter, the marine radio chatter spoke of seeing a pair of three-man insurgent teams. One group had a rocket-propelled grenade and a rooftop forward observer with a mobile phone.

Tanks and armored vehicles fired at the railway station and at buildings on the northern outskirts. City lights blinked out for a time, then came back on. The next morning, Reuters reported that two civilians had been killed, and that a newly built, unused hospital had been hit. Weapons caches were also destroyed.

But a counterattack never came. "They didn't respond like we thought they would," Colonel Ramos said later. "They're smart. They're saving it up. They learned a lesson - they used to show themselves."

There is also concern that information about the offensive - which has been shared with officers of Iraqi forces, whose several thousand troops are to take part alongside US forces - may have been leaked. An Iraqi captain deserted on Saturday, after receiving a US battalion commander's briefing. He is a Kurd, and is not believed to have left to compromise the plan. US commanders say he may have been afraid to fight. Indeed, a number of Iraqi soldiers also did not show up over the weekend, echoing the performance of Iraqi troops last April, when units melted away at the outset of fighting.

"To be honest, it doesn't bother me [if insurgents] know [the plan], if it induces a bit of fear in their hearts," Ramos said Sunday. "I'd like them to sleep uneasy tonight, because tomorrow they'll be captured or dead."