The Marines are getting ready for an all-out assault.
Troops are disassembling and cleaning their weapons, stocking up on supplies, studying tactics and participating in numerous drills. A sense of exhilaration is evident at dusty bases near Fallouja, a rebel stronghold now firmly in the cross hairs of the U.S. military and Iraqi interim government.
“I’ve been waiting for this fight ever since I joined the Marines,” said Staff Sgt. Dennis Nash, an 11-year veteran whose platoon has been fine-tuning its skills. “This battle is going to be written about in history books.... The terrorists who want to fight us are in that city, and we’re going to get ‘em.”
The day and night are filled with detonations: Mortars coming in, artillery fire going out, airstrikes on Fallouja, about three miles to the east.
Helicopter rotors rumble and F-16 fighter jets zoom overhead. The ground shakes, a slight wind ripples and mushroom clouds rise from massive controlled explosions of 2,000 pounds or more of captured weapon caches from Saddam Hussein’s forces.
Nine Marines were killed and nine were wounded Saturday when insurgents ambushed a U.S. convoy on the outskirts of Fallouja. The car bomb attack was the deadliest incident involving U.S. troops in nearly nine months.
Marine commanders say they are still awaiting final orders, and will abide by a negotiated settlement if a deal emerges from talks between Fallouja representatives and Iraqi government officials.
In a news conference Sunday, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi warned that the window was closing for reaching a negotiated resolution with the insurgents, calling it “the final phase” of efforts to avoid an attack.
Using much the same language as the Americans, he described Falloujans as victims of foreign fighters and eager to be rescued.
U.S. troops are openly skeptical of any settlement.
“The terrorists are barking up the wrong tree,” said Cpl. Anibal Paz, a 21-year-old from Boston. “They’re taking us on and they won’t be able to back it up.”
The upbeat mood contrasts with the generally spartan conditions here. Many Marines are billeted in bombed-out barracks that once housed fighters from an Iranian exile opposition group sponsored by Hussein. Arabic slogans meant to inspire the Iranians are still scrawled on many walls. Hussein’s image stares down in one large room converted to a mess hall.
For many, there is a feeling that an attack would complete a job abandoned in April, when Marines were ordered to cut short an assault on Fallouja.
Commanders downplayed such motivation.
“It doesn’t matter what happened in April,” said Lt. Col. Gareth Brandl, who commands the 1st Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment. “There’s an enemy [in Fallouja], and my men are ready to go in and destroy the enemy.”
Military officials will not say how many troops are preparing or when the assault is scheduled to begin. But the numbers of Marines this time is sure to exceed the fewer than 3,000 who participated in the April operation.
Joining the Marines will be Army units and an unknown number of Iraqi troops. Officials emphasized that any assault must be perceived as an Iraqi operation ordered by Allawi.
“Even more important than the battle is the aftermath,” one senior commander said. “The Iraqis need to go in there like the American government goes into Florida after a hurricane. They need to be seen on the ground helping people.”
Several thousand Iraqi police, national guardsmen and army personnel are said to be poised to move into Fallouja to help maintain order once the Marines have secured the city. Most are not from Fallouja, and thus are resistant to the intimidation that contributed to the failure of the Fallouja Brigade, the special unit of Iraqi forces set up in April to help maintain the peace. Many members turned out to be insurgents or sympathizers.
In addition, tens of millions of dollars in reconstruction funds may be spent on projects in Fallouja once the fighting stops. Marine lawyers are traveling with combat units, ready to handle compensation claims for battle damage.
But first, commanders say, the city must be wrested from criminals, religious militants, foreign fighters, including Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi, and nationalist elements such as former Iraqi army personnel still loyal to Hussein.
The insurgents have had six months to dig in. Some already may have slipped out of the city. But others seem ready for a battle.
“This is going to be our road to war,” said Capt. Theodore Bethea II, commander of Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, pointing to one of his amphibious tracked vehicles.
A steady drizzle Sunday had turned much of the fine sand here into mud that clung to Marines’ boots like wet cement. But the troops practiced their “dismount” maneuvers without hesitation, crouching in the mud, rifles trained at a still-distant enemy.
Platoon leaders urged the troops to cut down on nonessential items in their backpacks -- some as heavy as 70 pounds. In the house-to-house fighting likely in Fallouja, mobility will be essential.
They covered familiar territory: Watch out for your buddy. Mind the heavy fire likely to be coming from the Marines’ armored vehicles as troops on foot approach buildings and insurgent positions. Pause for a second to get your bearings if necessary amid the chaos of battle.
“The Marines are motivated,” said Gunnery Sgt. Doug Berry, who was helping oversee the drill. “The enemy has been asking for us, and we’re ready to give ‘em what they asked for.”
Times staff writer Alissa J. Rubin in Baghdad contributed to this report.