U.S and Iraqi forces backed by heavy armor and air power are poised to move on the holy city of Najaf to flush out insurgents loyal to rebel Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. After a week of heavy fighting and casualties, American forces have been warning a final battle to end what has been a four-month insurrection by Sadr militiamen could be imminent.
While U.S. forces prepare for a possible assault on Najaf, they are also waiting to see if seven days of heavy fighting, coupled with new warnings to Sadr loyalists to once and for all give up the fight, will spare both sides the likelihood of the heavy casualties and destruction that would accompany urban combat.
"What we would like is for them to lay down their weapons and bring back a peaceful Najaf," he said.
But speaking from Baghdad, Marine spokesman Major Jay Antonelli says U.S. and Iraqi forces are ready to move in if insurgents refuse to heed the warnings.
"It will take a couple of days, but we will come out victorious," said Major Antonelli. "Remember, we're there because the governor Najaf has asked us to be there and asked for the help to restore order and peace to the city of Najaf."
But retaking the city could mean entering Najaf's holy shrines where insurgents have been taking sanctuary and firing on U.S.-led forces, a move that would risk the anger of Shiite Muslims the world over.
"It's a calculated bet," said Carl Conetta, a military analyst at the Commonwealth Institute, a public policy research center in Massachusetts
"I think the principle concern is going to be the political repercussions of any destruction of the shrines," he continued. "I think the assault on the city itself has political repercussions because it is viewed as a sacred city so even a relatively careful assault with little collateral damage is going to reverberate throughout the Muslim world that the United States is pressing in on their holy places."
At least one of Najaf's holy shrines was damaged in fighting between coalition forces and Sadr militiamen earlier this year. Marine spokesman Jay Antonelli expects Marines to try to avoid holy sites but not if insurgents continue to use them as a perch to fire on multi-national forces.
"We are doing everything we can to prevent collateral damage to the shrine and to the structures within the cemetery," he said. "It is not our intention by any means to destroy any buildings and actually loss of any human life is not what we want."
Retired U.S. General Tommy Franks, who commanded last year's American-led invasion of Iraq and had to prepare for the possibility of an uprising, discounts the rebellion led by Moqtada al-Sadr as being a serious threat to Iraq's overall stability.
"Right now what we see is anarchy and chaos," said General Franks. "We do not see someone trying to overthrow the government and trying to install a new government in Iraq. So it could be a lot worse."
Fighting continued in Najaf Wednesday but correspondents there quote U.S. military officials as saying preparations for an all out assault are taking longer than expected. Any final military push to take Najaf would require the approval of the Iraqi government.