NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq — Marines just outside the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah were making final preparations Friday for a large-scale offensive that U.S. commanders and diplomats on the ground in Baghdad now describe as all but inevitable.
"We are gearing up to do an operation," Brigadier Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik, deputy commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, told reporters at a base near Fallujah where troops were massing. "If we're told to go, we're going to go. And when we go . . . it's going to be decisive, and we're going to go in there, and we're going to whack 'em."
Officials of the Iraqi interim government have held out hope that their long-deadlocked negotiations with representatives from Fallujah would yield results and head off the prospective assault. But commanders of the Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based Marines who would mount the operation expressed little confidence in the talks. The negotiations "are a ruse . . . to stall for time," Marine Col. Michael Shupp told reporters gathered here in anticipation of the offensive.
Fallujah representatives have said they would lay down their arms only if U.S. troops agreed to stay out of the troubled city west of Baghdad — a demand that the U.S.-backed Iraqi interim government has rejected.
Hejlik said that Marines were awaiting word from interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi on when to launch the attack. While the scope and timing of any invasion of Fallujah remain secret, it was widely believed that no attack would come before the U.S. presidential election on Tuesday.
U.S. officials view the impending invasion as key to reasserting control of Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland in preparation for landmark Iraqi national elections scheduled for January. They cite recent military successes in reversing rebel gains in other Iraqi cities and say Fallujah also cannot stand as an inspirational sanctuary for Sunni insurgents who fan out across the country and launch deadly attacks.
"If you decide to fight for Fallujah, you have to fight for it early enough so that you can get past the battle and have registration, reconstruction (and) elections," said a senior U.S. diplomat in Baghdad.
U.S. officials in Baghdad said that a U.S.-led assault on the well-entrenched guerrillas of Fallujah is imminent.
"I think we're going to have to clear those guys out," a senior U.S. commander in Baghdad said this week. The commander called Fallujah "the Dodge City of Iraq."
As much as 80 percent of Fallujah's population of more than 250,000 has fled the city, said Maj. James West, an intelligence officer with the Marines here. Recent visitors have described Fallujah as a kind of ghost town, with little traffic and few shops open, while masked "moujahedeen" guard principal entrances and exits.
According to U.S. estimates, some 3,000 to 4,000 armed insurgents are present in and around Fallujah. Despite the repeated U.S. emphasis on the foreign legions of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, officials say it is likely that most of those under arms in Fallujah are Iraqis. Militants have been digging in for months in anticipation of a U.S. strike, commanders say.
In an indication that the assault may come within days, the first wave of British troops from the Black Watch regiment has arrived at a base near Baghdad, the Defense Ministry in London said. In addition, Marines here held a gas-attack drill on Friday and have switched from three hot meals a day to two.
U.S. officials requested help from the British in an effort to free up more American forces for the assault on Fallujah. From the U.S. standpoint, an assault on Fallouja is the logical step after U.S.-led offensives since August have routed insurgents in Najaf, Samarra, Tal Afar and the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City. In each case, Iraqi troops have fought alongside U.S. forces—a pattern that wil be repeated in Fallujah, authorities say, though Fallujah is likely to be the toughest fight.
Once Fallujah is under control, U.S. authorities say, Iraqi troops would take the lead in restoring law and order. However, U.S. forces also plan to maintain a strong presence in the city and will be ready to back up Iraqi authorities when needed.
U.S. forces are using as a partial model the retaking in August of Najaf, where hundreds of Shiite militiamen loyal to militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr finally left the city after weeks of fighting. In the case of Najaf, al-Sadr's men forced a lengthy stalemate by taking cover in and around the sacred gold-domed shrine of Imam Ali, and the surviving fighters did not leave until they were allowed to slip out of the city without being captured under a deal brokered by clerical authorities.
Much of central Najaf was destroyed in the three weeks of fighting, but Iraqi forces loyal to the government are now in control of the city and tens of millions of dollars in reconstruction projects have begun.
In other developments:
Kidnappers released a 7-year-old Lebanese boy a week after they grabbed him as he was walking home from school.
Two car bombs exploded in the northern city of Mosul, killing an Iraqi civilian and slightly wounding five U.S. soldiers, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
U.S. troops detained a Croat truck driver in Iraq. The U.S. Embassy in Croatia said Damir Mikulic was being held at Camp Bucca, near Umm Qasr in southern Iraq, for filming U.S. military bases and training exercises. His video camera allegedly held more than eight hours of sensitive footage.
Aqil Hamid al-Adili, an assistant to the governor of Diyala province, was killed by gunmen as he was sitting in a friend's office, police said. Al-Adili had warned of insurgent infiltration in Iraqi forces after 50 U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers were killed last weekend.
An American contract worker from Columbus, Ga., was killed Wednesday in a car bomb attack, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer reported. Travis Schnoor, 39, died when his vehicle flipped over after hitting an explosive device, the report said.
Contributing: Associated Press.