NEAR FALLOUJA, Iraq — Thousands of troops from the new Iraqi army are training at U.S. Marine bases here to participate alongside U.S. forces in a planned full-scale assault on the insurgent-held city of Fallouja in coming days.
Iraqi forces are integral to the onslaught, U.S. officials insisted, scoffing at suggestions that the Iraqis would only be window dressing to make any invasion seem an Iraqi operation.
"They're more than just a show," Lt. Col. Gareth Brandl said of the Iraqis. "They'll be with us ... shoulder to shoulder."
U.S. commanders foresee a better result than last April, when, during an aborted Marine invasion of the city, scores of Iraqi civil defense corpsmen and police -- many of them Fallouja natives -- deserted. A U.S.-sponsored brigade composed of many ex-military men from Fallouja also collapsed subsequently, its loyalties compromised.
Despite the American optimism, the exact role of Iraqi troops during an invasion remains somewhat murky beyond securing mosques, government buildings and other sensitive sites where insurgents are expected to be holed up. Once the city is secured, U.S. authorities said, Iraqi national guard and army units will be brought there to help maintain order. The U.S. troops initially will patrol with the Iraqis, authorities said, but eventually will withdraw and play a backup role.
Many of the Iraqi soldiers this time around are Kurds and Shiite Muslims, who held a subordinate role to Iraq's Sunni Muslim Arab minority during President Saddam Hussein's rule.
Deploying large numbers of Kurds and Shiites in an invasion of Fallouja could prove risky in the sectarian tinderbox that is contemporary Iraq. But U.S. commanders said the Iraqi force poised to enter Fallouja included many Sunnis, who make up most of the population in Fallouja and central and western Iraq.
"We even have some people from Fallouja," said Master Sgt. Andreas Alesky, a Marine advisor who has worked with Iraqi recruits for months and accompanied the squad Friday on its training mission.
In recent days, Iraqi troops have joined Marines in exercises at bases that have become staging areas for what is expected to be a massive operation.
The timing of any invasion remains secret, but U.S. combat commanders have indicated that a massive strike is inevitable, and imminent. U.S. artillery and aircraft appeared to continue their daily strikes late Friday and early today, triggering loud booms and flashes of light in the city.
"There's a foregone conclusion here: We will take the city back," Brandl, who heads the 1st Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment, said Friday. "The enemy has got a face -- it's called Satan. He's in Fallouja. We're going to destroy it."
In exercises overseen by Marines at the camps, AK-47-toting Iraqi troops in beige helmets and camouflage khakis have assaulted buildings, secured streets, scampered from armored vehicles and learned about U.S. weapons and tactics. Much of the training has focused on the house-to-house, urban warfare that is anticipated in Fallouja.
"This is very useful to us," said Capt. Mustafa Hajani, a former Kurdish rebel fighter who heads a new Iraqi army squad training Friday with Marines from Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. "We want to bring democracy to Iraq and destroy the terrorists."
After having disbanded Hussein's army last year in the early days of the American-led occupation, officials are trying to rebuild a force that they say will be independent of the tribal pressures, intimidation and charges of collaboration that have helped doom other efforts to introduce U.S.-backed Iraqi forces into the maelstrom of Fallouja.
But building a new Iraqi security force has proved difficult, with hundreds of members killed in bombings and other attacks, many by Sunnis who have spearheaded the insurgency. Moreover, some of those attacking the new security forces are believed to be former members of Hussein's army.
U.S. commanders believe that the new Iraqi forces will prove beneficial.
"You can't really hold them to American standards," said Master Sgt. Alesky. "But I think they'll do pretty good."
Privately, however, some Marines are skeptical, worrying in particular about undisciplined night firing that could cause "friendly fire" casualties.
"I just want to make sure they're in front of me," one Marine sergeant said.
On the practice field, all agree, things have gone well in recent days.
The Iraqi squad watched Friday as Marines demonstrated how to secure a city street, house by house, always taking care to maintain a defensible perimeter. Then the Iraqis did the same, mimicking the Marines' tactics as well as drawing on their months of training and, for many, their experience in Hussein's army.
"They seemed to do all right out there," said Staff Sgt. Michael Peavey of Bravo Company. "We're trying to get on the same page, get a feel for each other. We want to know how they'll react. And they need to know how we'll react."