Americans prepare for the 'final assault' on rebel stronghold

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The Independent Online

For the American military, Fallujah is "the last battle", an overwhelming assault that will destroy the epicentre of the rebellion sweeping through the country, the beginning of the end of major American military action in Iraq.

For the insurgents, Fallujah is a rallying cry. An American attack will, they declare, lead to retribution throughout Iraq, re-invigorating the resistance, just as an attack on the city did six months earlier.

Talks are still taking place between Iyad Allawi's interim government and a delegation from Fallujah. But no one seriously believes they will lead to anything. The government's main condition is that the militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi be handed over. People in Fallujah say the demand is deliberately impossible to meet. The Americans, they say, with all their might and the offer of a $25m reward, have failed to capture or kill the man.

The question now is not if but when there will be an attack on Fallujah. The US military maintains that the date has not been influenced by the American elections on 2 November, and, even leaving political considerations aside, it is unclear if enough troops will be available for an offensive before then.

The Americans have about 2,500 troops around Fallujah at present. In the battle to take another rebel stronghold, Samarra - seen as a dress rehearsal for Fallujah - 3,000 American and 2,000 Iraqi government forces were needed to fight 500 insurgents. Fallujah is estimated to contain between 2,000 and 2,500 militants, including al-Zarqawi's fighters and another group led by Omar Hadid. US military commanders are said to believe that a force of about 10,000 is necessary to take and hold the city.

Military activity by the US and its allies is increasing every day. Yesterday, 850 British troops with Warrior armoured cars and Scimitar light tanks moved from Basra into an area near Iskandariyah, 20 miles south-west of Baghdad. They will free up 1,000 US marines for the Fallujah encirclement.

Also being assembled is the enormous firepower of heavy artillery and Abrams battle tanks, A-10 "Warthog" helicopter gunships, and FA-18, F-16 and F-15E warplanes armed with laser and satellite-guided 500lb bombs, favoured over the larger bombs to minimise "collateral damage".

Lieutenant General John F Sattler, commander of US forces in western and south-central Iraq, said: "If we are told to go, it'll be decisive. The goal will be to limit damage, limit the casualties and do it as rapidly as possible."

As in Samarra, the Americans will use Iraqi troops and publicise their involvement to show that this is not simply a US attack on Iraqis. But the morale of Iraqi government forces - who lost49 army recruits in an attack by insurgents at the weekend - is low, and it is uncertain how many can be trained and equipped in time. US military sources indicate that intense air attacks will be followed by artillery and tank bombardment, with armour moving in and "sectioning" the city before ground troops pursue enemy fighters house by house. The fighting, they say, is likely to be fierce but short, lasting days rather than weeks.

Military engineers are lined up to go in behind combat units to restore water, sanitation and electricity, after which aid will be taken in. "We're not here to destroy the town. We are here to give it back," said Lt Gen Sattler.

Americans are keen to avoid a repeat of earlier experiences in Fallujah. In April, after the lynching of four American security guards, the White House and the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, insisted on a punitive attack on the city against the wishes the US Marine commander Lieutenant General James T Conway. After days of bitter fighting, and the deaths of 600 Iraqis, the marines were ordered to withdraw, handing over power and arms to a hastily formed "Fallujah Brigade" which, in turn, handed it to the resistance.

Making their base there, the insurgents fanned out to Ramadi, al-Qa'im and Mosul. Most importantly, they seized the Iskandariyah triangle - where the British troops of the Black Watch will be based - to bring the war to the capital, Baghdad, in waves of car bombings and mortar and rocket attacks.

The US response was to pound Fallujah nightly with warplanes and helicopter gunships, after which the American authorities would announce they had killed associates of al-Zarqawi in a "precision strike". But they also killed women, children and elderly civilians.

The raids and the prospect of an assault have led to an exodus from Fallujah. More than 70 per cent of the population of 300,000 have left, the Americans opening their cordon for departing families and arresting those seen as enemy fighters.

They are leaving behind a city in the grip of the most extreme militant groups. The Mujaheddin shura (council) has declared it an Islamic "emirate". Women and girls have been told to cover their heads.

The air attacks have prompted many resistance fighters to try to leave the city, with some captured at US roadblocks. Nearly 100 have been arrested. But many have also slipped out and are said to be reinforcing the insurgents in Ramadi, the Iskandariyah triangle, and Baghdad. Fallujah may not, after all, be "the last battle".