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U.S., Iraqi forces poised to move on Falluja

Commanders give pep talks as possible assault nears

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FALLUJA, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. forces awaited orders Sunday to begin their assault on the stubborn rebel stronghold of Falluja, stoked by their leaders to believe in the historical significance of their next mission.

Earlier, Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi declared a state of emergency over most of the country, including Falluja, and said "the window had closed" on attempts to wrest control of the city from rebel elements peacefully. (Iraqi PM warns insurgents)

"Once they tell us to go ... you're going to make history," Sgt. Maj. Carlton Kent of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force said during a fiery pep talk for the Marines. "This is another Hue city in the making. And you Devil Dogs, you soldiers, you sailors, and if we got airmen, you're all going to do it."

Hue was the site of bloody fighting during the Vietnam War when U.S. forces and North Vietnamese guerrillas battled house-to-house in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive.

Lt. Gen. John Sattler told his forces that Falluja "is being held hostage by mugs, thugs, murderers and intimidators."

"All they need is for us to give them the opportunity to break the back of that intimidation," Sattler said. "Go out and stomp it out where it needs to be stomped. And then the sun will come through."

Defense Minister Hazem Sha'alan, meanwhile, addressed Iraqi soldiers about to embark on the mission.

"This is the first time in the history of Iraq we have seen people being slaughtered like sheep under the umbrella of Islam," Shalan said, according to a pool report that was translated by the Washington Post.

"Your conscience and families call for you. They call for you to liberate this city," he said. "When we do heroic operations inside Iraq, we hear evil, dirty voices from outside Iraq defending those criminals. With your courage and bravery, you will shut up these tongues.

"You are the defenders of democracy; you are the defenders of freedom."

But along with the pep talk, the forces about to storm Falluja were given a chilling reminder of the deadly seriousness of their task. Each was issued a "kill number," to be written in indelible ink on their hands so they can be identified if they die in the fighting.

On Sunday evening, the sporadic hammering of the Marines' 155mm guns "softening up" rebel targets lit the skies.

U.S. warplanes, including AC-130 gunships, have bombarded insurgent targets in recent days to weaken positions ahead of the offensive. U.S. tanks were also engaged in the northeastern part of Falluja. Machine gun and small-arms fire could be heard as well.

Falluja has been pounded for months by U.S. forces trying to root out insurgents they believe to be allied with terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but military officials said they now believe al-Zarqawi has left the city.

Military officials said they believe 3,000 to 5,000 insurgents may be inside the city, but they also acknowledge many may have slipped away.

Marines attacked Falluja in April after four U.S. private security contractors were killed and mutilated. The ensuing battles led to many deaths. The U.S.-led forces established an indigenous Iraqi brigade to restore peace to the city, but in the summer, the brigade fell apart and insurgents solidified control there.

The city, which is known as the City of Mosques for the scores of places of worship there, will provide dangerous terrain for the thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops, who expect a textbook urban warfare scenario.

Military officials said they expect mosques to be used as sniping positions, command and control posts, and combat clinics.

Roadside bomb ambushes, rooftop snipers, doorway ambushes and booby-trapped buildings are among the expected insurgent tactics in the city -- which has a mixture of wide avenues, narrow streets and blind alleys.

Marines said they hope to frustrate the insurgents with speed -- using infantry, tanks and attack helicopters fast enough to surprise the insurgent defenders. They also want to make sure they are equipped to evacuate casualties.

Karl Penhaul contributed to this report.

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