us gearing up for showdown * fallujah

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    US forces gearing up for showdown
    07:37 AEST Sat Oct 30 2004

    AP - American forces are gearing up for a major operation in the insurgent bastion of Fallujah, where up to 5,000 Islamic militants, Saddam Hussein loyalists and common criminals are hunkered down, US officers said.

    Also a Japanese civilian taken hostage in Iraq by militants has been killed, Kyodo News agency reported, citing unidentified Japanese government officials.

    Islamic militants had threatened on Tuesday to kill hostage Shosei Koda within 48 hours unless Japan withdrew its troops from Iraq. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi firmly rejected that demand, saying he would not give in to terrorists.

    Kyodo said a body found in the city of Tikrit, Iraq, had been identified as Koda. The report could not be immediately confirmed early Saturday. US officials stress that the final order to launch an attack against a city that has become the symbol of Iraqi resistance would come from Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. He has warned Fallujah to hand over followers of terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi or face attack.

    Allawi has issued no such order, but preparations are clearly underway, including the movement of British troops into areas close to Baghdad so that American forces can be redeployed for the showdown in Fallujah.

    "We're gearing up to do an operation and when were told to go we'll go," Brig. Gen. Dennis Hejlik, deputy commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said at a camp near Fallujah. "When we do go, we'll whack them."

    Meanwhile, Marines have been hitting Fallujah with frequent airstrikes, targeting buildings believed used by al-Zarqawi's followers. Marines have also launched probing attacks into Fallujah's outskirts to test insurgent defences, Marine Col. Mike Shupp said.

    Iraqi public outrage over reports of civilian casualties pressured the Marines into calling off their siege of the city last April - a move which strengthened the insurgents' hold on Sunni areas west of Baghdad and likely contributed to the dramatic deterioration of security in the capital itself.

    On Friday, a hardline Sunni cleric in Baghdad, Sheik Mahdi al-Sumaidaei, warned the Americans and Iraqis against launching a full-scale attack on Fallujah. If they do, he said Sunni clerics in the capital will issue a fatwa, or a binding religious decree, ordering Muslims to launch street protests and a civil disobedience campaign.

    "Everybody knows that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is another lie like the WMD," he told The Associated Press, referring to Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction.

    US planners believe many of Fallujah's 300,000 residents have already fled the city, a factor that could reduce civilian deaths. US forces also plan to use US-trained Iraqi forces - especially around Fallujah's numerous mosques - to avoid allegations that the attack is nothing more than a bid by the non-Muslim Americans to crush a city widely known in Iraq for religious piety.

    "The difference this time is its driven by the" interim Iraqi government, Hejlik said. "They're calling the shots."

    In other developments Friday:

    - Kidnappers released a 7-year-old Lebanese boy a week after they grabbed him as he was walking home from school. Mohammed Hamad was kidnapped Oct. 22 while on his way home from school. His kidnappers initially demanded US$150,000 (euro119,000) ransom but it was not known if money was paid.

    - Two car bombs exploded in the northern city of Mosul, killing an Iraqi civilian and lightly wounding five US soldiers, according to the US and Iraqi officials.
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