Marines Prep for a Shifting Enemy ; Senior US and Iraqi Officials Say a US-Led Invasion of the Rebel Stronghold, 30 Miles West of Baghdad, Could Begin within Days

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Breathing hard and leading with their rifles, a cluster of US marines takes cover behind a mountain of rubble. Another team dashes across a field, concealing themselves behind a large metal wheel.

"Rat-a-tat-tat!" shouts one, like a comic-book warrior. "You're dead!" declares another, at pretend insurgents.

If training is key to battlefield success, the marines of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force are trying to maximize their skills as they prepare for the type of urban offensive in Fallujah that most military experts anticipated 18 months ago, when US forces first entered Baghdad.

Senior US and Iraqi officials say an invasion of the city could begin within days, in a bid to decapitate the insurgency that has spread across Iraq. The challenge for these troops will be to stay one step ahead of a resistance that is constantly evolving, has become adept at using the Internet to share tactics, is fighting on its home turf, and has had months to prepare.

"They are changing all the time - it's cat and mouse, and we're trying to stay the cat," says Capt. Gill Juarez, an armored company commander from San Diego.

Some 52 Marines died in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq last April, when a US invasion force entered the city, igniting resistance across a string of cities.

"Their only advantage is they can use the asymmetric threat, and we can't go there, nor should we," says Captain Juarez, referring to guerrilla tactics that include roadside and suicide car bomb attacks, which killed eight marines near Abu Ghraib last Saturday.

On Juarez's desk in a Spartan makeshift operations center, is a worn book called "Russia's Chechnya Wars 1994-2000: Lessons from Urban Combat." The light armor commander has asked all his officers to read it, to understand how Russia's superior firepower - brought to bear destroying the Chechen capital, Grozny - did not bring victory.

"It's no secret for mechanized units: you're vulnerable [in urban warfare]," says Juarez. "You have to have dismounted security. I tell my scouts [marines on the ground] that they need to have eyeballs 'one feature over.' They need to know what's going on the other side of the wall or the berm."

Despite the mustering of US Marine and Army forces for any Fallujah invasion, and thousands of newly trained Iraqi troops to control the city afterward, not all in Iraq's interim government are convinced about the tough approach.

Ghazi al-Yawar, Iraq's interim president, criticized the effort, saying in an interview with a Kuwait newspaper that the standoff called for "continued dialogue." And Mohammed Bashar al-Faidhi, spokesman of the Association of Muslim Scholars, warned Tuesday that an assault on Fallujah would spur his Sunni clerical group to use "mosques, the media, and professional associations" to proclaim a civil disobedience campaign and a boycott of the January elections. Two Iraqi cities also saw fresh violence Tuesday as a car bomb in Baghdad killed at least six people, while in Mosul, a car bomb exploded near a military convoy, killing four civilians and wounding at least seven soldiers.

A further challenge in Fallujah, US commanders say, is the apparent ease and speed with which insurgents have adapted their tactics. And this offensive will be no surprise to Fallujah - the showdown has been telegraphed for weeks; more than 80 percent of the population of about 300,000 are believed to have left the city to avoid the invasion. …