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Warplanes continue to hit targets in Falluja

Allawi issues warning as offensive looms on anti-U.S. stronghold

A U.S. Marine checks ammunition Friday near Falluja. An assault on the Iraqi city is expected soon.
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U.S. and Iraqi troops prepare for an all-out assault on Falluja.

Marines brush up on urban warfare tactics before a possible strike.
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. warplanes attacked targets in and around the insurgent-held city of Falluja early Saturday, while sporadic gunfire and artillery echoed through the night.

U.S. and Iraqi forces are gearing up for a major offensive in the western city and interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said Friday the "window is closing" for a peaceful settlement there.

"We intend to liberate the people and bring the rule of law," Allawi said in Brussels, Belgium, where he was visiting the European Union and NATO to discuss aid for his fledgling government.

Allawi will make the decision whether to begin the assault. Iraqi authorities have asked Falluja city leaders to hand over the insurgents.

U.S. warplanes, including AC-130 gunships, have pounded insurgent targets in recent days to "soften" positions. U.S. tanks also engaged targets in northeast Falluja, and U.S. Marines fired artillery at insurgent positions. Machine-gun fire and small-arms fire could be heard as well.

Several thousand Marines, backed by Iraqi forces, are positioned around Falluja, in al Anbar province about 40 miles west of Baghdad.

It is believed that the city holds 2,000 to 5,000 insurgents, who communicate with cell phones, carrier pigeons and flags.

The Abu Musab al-Zarqawi terror network is based in the city, according to the U.S. and Iraqi governments. The group has taken responsibility for car bombings, kidnappings and beheadings throughout Iraq. In mid-October, a statement posted on an Islamist Web site from the terror group declared allegiance to Osama Bin Laden.

More than 200,000 people have fled the city, leaving behind about 50,000 residents, the U.S. military estimates.

The major assault is expected soon, so the region can be pacified before the January elections for a transitional national assembly.

The assault is being planned at a camp outside the city, where Marines are rehearsing urban warfare. They are studying fighting techniques used in Vietnam, in the Israeli-occupied territories, Chechnya and Somalia.

Commanders said they expect to encounter booby-trapped buildings, roadside bombs, suicide car bombs and rooftop snipers.

Military officials said there are scores of mosques used as insurgent sniping positions, command and control posts, and combat clinics.

Marines will work to surprise the insurgents by moving in quickly with infantry, tanks and attack helicopters.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has voiced concern about a possible assault.

In a letter dated October 31, Annan warned the United States, Britain and Iraq that military offensives being planned for Falluja and other insurgent strongholds could jeopardize the upcoming elections.

He said he worries about the "negative impact that major military assaults, in which the main burden seems bound to be borne by American forces, are likely to have on the prospects for encouraging a broader participation by Iraqis in the political process, including in the elections."

On Friday, an American soldier died and five others were wounded as "the result of an indirect fire attack" on a base near Falluja, the U.S. military said.

In Al Anbar province, where Falluja and Ramadi are located, two U.S Marines were killed and four others wounded Thursday, a U.S. military spokesman said.

In the northern Iraqi city of Balad, a roadside bomb hit a U.S. military convoy Thursday night, killing one 1st Infantry Division soldier and wounding another, the U.S. military said.

The number of U.S. military fatalities in the war totals 1,128.

Booby traps found

In Ramadi, U.S. forces said they defused explosives rigged to detonate inside a youth center used by dozens of children. Tons of explosives were found hidden in a mosque.

In the Baquba region, north of Baghdad, insurgent attacks over the last 24 hours claimed the lives of three Iraqis.

Two of the civilians killed were children who died when a mortar landed on their house near a police station. Three women were wounded.

Other developments

  • The United Nations on Friday warned that an Iraqi decision to allow Iraqis outside the country to vote in national elections could make it more difficult to hold credible elections by a January deadline. A spokesman for Iraq's electoral commission said Friday that the body expects the elections to take place in the last week of January.
  • The humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders said it will stop working in Iraq because of escalating violence. The group has been there since December 2002. The group said the "warring parties have repeatedly shown their disrespect for independent humanitarian assistance."
  • While in Rome, Italy, Allawi, the Iraqi interim prime minister, called on countries that he said had been acting as "spectators" to help rebuild his country. He met with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Pope John Paul II. (Full story) Berlusconi reaffirmed Thursday that Italy would keep its troops in Iraq for as long as the Iraqi government wanted. (Full story)
  • CNN's Kevin Flower, Ayman Mohyeldin, Robin Oakley, Karl Penhaul, Cal Perry, and Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.

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