Last Fallujah civilians urged to go as Allawi says assault is imminent

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The last remaining civilians in Fallujah were urged by the US military yesterday to leave the city as Iraq's interim Prime Minister suggested that an assault was imminent.

Last night US warplanes pounded parts of the city in what residents called the strongest attacks in months.

Earlier in the day troops sealed off the few routes left out of the city and used loudspeakers and leaflets to deliver the message - this was their final chance to escape before the beginning of the attack.

Only a trickle were leaving in response. More than 80 per cent of Fallujah's population of 300,000 have already left during the days of relentless air strikes and the disappearance of any prospect of a peaceful solution.

The air raids continued yesterday, increasing their pulverising intensity with five raids in the space of seven hours. The distinct noise made by C-130 gunships were heard overhead, as missiles and cannon fire destroyed buildings on the outskirts, to allow US armour and tanks to thrust into the centre. Tank commanders said they had been studying the lessons of the Chechen wars to avoid getting trapped in their armour in narrow alleys.

Prolonged firefights were fought on the ground during which two US Marines were killed and four wounded. The rebels were said to be putting up fierce resistance with grenades, machine-guns and mortars.

The long-awaited battle, which has become as much symbolic as strategic in Iraq's war of attrition, may start within 48 hours with units of US Marines moving to their "starting block" on the edge of the rebel city at first light yesterday. Iyad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister, on a tour of Europe, is expected to give the "order" to attack on his return today, although the real decision on the timing is widely accepted as being made in Washington.

"The window really is closing for a peaceful settlement," Mr Allawi said at a press conference in Brussels, where he met European Union leaders.

"Most of the people have left Fallujah. The insurgents are still operating there. We hope that they will come to their senses. We intend to liberate the people and bring in the rule of law," he added.

Colonel Michael Shupp, commander of the US Marines said yesterday: "We are almost ready. We are making last preparations. It will be soon. We are just awaiting orders from Prime Minster Allawi."

However, Col Shupp admitted that the US military did not know whether the militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was in Fallujah - an embarrassing admission since the Allawi government has made the delivery of the Jordanian by the people of Fallujah a pre-condition in peace talks with delegations of civic leaders.

* A group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi appealed to militants holding Margaret Hassan, an Iraqi-British aid worker, to free her unless she was proven to be a spy, a message posted on an Islamic website said yesterday. The militants had threatened to turn her over to Zarqawi.

Tim Lambon is a journalist with Channel 4 Television