U.S. forces are closing in on the Iraqi city of Fallujah, launching new air strikes on the rebel stronghold, while Iraq's prime minister warns that a long-threatened battle to regain control of the city could be imminent. U.S. and Iraqi forces are now waiting for the order to move in.
Multinational forces, led by U.S. Marines, are on the outskirts of Fallujah, ready to launch an all-out assault to retake the city, which has been under the control of insurgents for the past eight months.
From his base at Camp Fallujah, U.S. Marine Major Francis Piccoli tells VOA he is aware of no peace talks, and doubts restoring Iraqi government control over Fallujah is possible without full scale urban combat. Once the Baghdad government gives the go-ahead, as many as 35,000 coalition and Iraqi forces could be called on, a force large enough, he says, to absolutely overwhelm any Iraqi resistance.
Meanwhile, in Brussels, Iraq's interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, was giving another warning that the assault could begin at any time.
"The window is really closing for a peaceful settlement," he said. "The Fallujah people, most of them have left Fallujah, and the insurgents and the terrorists are still operating there."
Marines just outside Fallujah say some of the suspected terrorists and insurgents who have been holed up in the city have been able to escape past military checkpoints. No word though, on whether wanted Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was among them. In the meantime, U.S. forces have been taking deadly fire from insurgents, as almost daily air strikes continue on rebel targets ahead of the expected ground assault.
With Iraqis around the country already registering to vote in January elections, the U.S. military says it is fully prepared to help create conditions in Fallujah that would allow Iraqis there to take part in the vote.
But U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is warning any battle for the Sunni stronghold could further anger Iraqis, and undermine the election.