Promising promotions to all soldiers who go into battle, the interim Iraqi defense minister, Hazim Shalan, called on his army Sunday to "liberate" Fallujah, a signal that U.S. forces had won the blessing of the interim government to proceed with an operation to retake the insurgent-held city.
"This is the first time in the history of Iraq we have seen people being slaughtered like sheep under the umbrella of Islam," Shalan told Iraqi troops gathered at a base near Fallujah. "Your conscience and families call for you. They call for you to liberate this city."
Dancing, singing and thrusting their rifles in the air, the Iraqi soldiers seemed to know a rallying cry when they heard one.
"We are here to defend our country," said Ali, 28, a soldier from Nasiriyah who is in the Iraqi army's 1st Brigade. Like many of the Iraqi soldiers interviewed here, he gave only one name. "We have to get rid of terrorism. All the world looks down on Iraq now because of the terrorists who are not Iraqi. We will make them see Iraqi men ending the terrorism in Iraq."
Although the battle for Fallujah will be led by U.S. forces, the operation is a test for the new Iraqi army, whose soldiers will be used mostly to secure areas after the Americans move through.
U.S. military leaders have touted the presence of the Iraqi forces as a crucial element in the planned assault on the city, which they did not succeed in retaking six months ago after a smaller-scale Marine offensive was called off for political reasons.
"Your warrior brothers in the U.S. Marine Corps are proud to stand next to you," Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, told Iraqi soldiers who surrounded him Sunday during the defense minister's visit to the camp.
"You are the future of your country, and we will be proud to be a part of that future with you," Sattler said as a crowd of Iraqi troops pressed toward him. "We will take all of our spirit into the fight to give Fallujah back to the Fallujah people."
The soldiers hooted with delight, pumped their fists and clapped Sattler on his beige flak jacket.
Marine commanders have not given a timeline for the offensive, but at an outpost near the city Sunday, a battle seemed imminent. Convoys of heavily armored vehicles lined up in long columns as soldiers loaded gear. The chow hall was nearly empty by dinnertime. Troops were told that meals would soon be served only to go -- to prevent crowds from forming in a central location. The Internet cafe and Post Exchange also planned to close indefinitely once the battle got underway.
By late Sunday night, artillery could be heard flying over the outpost, part of which was under light restrictions, meaning drivers had to cut their headlights and use night-vision goggles. Troops wandered around under a bright moon, shadows slipping across the white sand. Self-propelled howitzers shot off booming rounds that echoed from artillery batteries.
"You're rested, you're ready, and we're prepared," Lt. Col. James Rainey of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, told his staff as their mobile command center was broken down around them. "This is going to be the biggest fight any of us will do in the near future. . . . No matter what you think about the Iraqi war or the Iraqi government, this fight is 100 percent about terrorists -- terrorists who want to come to your house and kill you."
Fallujah, which the U.S. military last entered in April, has become a hub for fighters from countries including Syria, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, according to U.S. intelligence officers. They estimate that about 3,000 foreigners are in the city, poised to fight American troops.
The U.S. and Iraqi forces will be entering a combat zone considered challenging even for the most sophisticated armies, an urban battlefield reportedly laced with booby traps. The Marines already have warned that they could take heavy casualties.
The leader of the elite Iraqi Internal Threat Force, who gave his name as Mohammed Abbas, said his troops were ready for anything.
In earshot of U.S. military officers who are advising him, Abbas complained about the weapons Iraqi soldiers have available, primarily AK-47 assault rifles.
"The developed armies develop new weapons," he said. "In Iraq, we didn't have a chance. Our communications gear is not like the Americans use. The American soldiers have lighter and more developed equipment. Our weapons are old."
Even so, Abbas, who was an Iraqi army officer under deposed president Saddam Hussein, said he was confident his troops would be victorious.
"We know our enemy, even if they have developed weapons," he said. "As Iraqi people and army, we'll fight them with traditional weapons. We have our strategy and mentality. What made the Iraqi soldier fight the American soldiers in 1990 and last year, despite their high technology, is the same we will use in this battle."
As he walked the dusty grounds of the outpost, Abbas, who later acknowledged that the name he gave was an alias, beckoned a soldier to run faster when he called for him. Waving his hands in the air, Abbas declared that all his men were heroes and that "this," he said, nodding to his surroundings, "is my kingdom."
His soldiers squatted on the ground in front of him, waiting for direction, as he paced. "This one is 19," he said, pointing to a baby-faced recruit holding his rifle firmly. "And this one is 25."
Haider, 20, from Basra, who had not seen or talked to his family in a week, said he joined the Iraqi army initially to make a living.
"But later, when I saw the security situation deteriorating the country and all these terrorists coming to Iraq from outside, I changed my mind," he said. "I believe I have a big responsibility in my country. People depend on us. We will fight for them."
Muhammed, 24, from Mosul, echoed a sentiment expressed by other Iraqi soldiers. Though he was fully prepared to battle the foreign rebels, he would not fight the residents of the city, Muhammed said.
"No Iraqis will be a target for us," he said. "I cannot fight an Iraqi. He is my brother."