WITH THE 1ST MARINE DIVISION, Central Iraq - "This is it," said Brig. Gen. John Kelly, the assistant commander of the 1st Marine Division.
He was addressing top staff and combat officers yesterday as they clustered around a map taped on the side of an armored vehicle, and he was referring to the imminent attack on Iraqi Republican Guards south of Baghdad. "We're on the move."
By midnight, long dark rows of war machines - amphibious personnel carriers called Amtracks, light reconnaissance vehicles, and humvees mounted with rockets - stretched for miles north along Route 7, a ghostly presence under a starry sky.
Ahead lay the Tigris River, the strategic city of Kut, 100 miles south of Baghdad, and the Republican Guard's Baghdad division.
In the darkness, small groups of Marines of the 3rd Infantry Battalion of the 1st Regimental Combat Team discussed last-minute orders.
The plan, Col. John Toolan, the division's operations officer, told the gathered staff and officers, was for the Army's 3rd Infantry Division to come through the Karbala gap, south of Baghdad and west of these troops. That division, which has seen heavy fighting, is being supplemented with elements of the Army's 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions.
As for their troops, the officers learned, the plan was to continue north on Route 7 and engage the Iraqis at Kut, southeast of the capital. "Route 7 is like a dagger pointed at the heart of the beast," Kelly said.
The 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing has been pounding the Republican Guard division for the past four days, Col. Jim Howcroft, an intelligence officer, said, and on one recent day destroyed 36 of the Iraqis' most modern, though still aged, T-72 tanks. "They took out that entire armored battalion," Howcroft said.
"If they're in place, they're going to die," he said of the Iraqi division. "I don't think they have any fight left in them."
But as Kelly pointed out, the fight ahead lies through particularly difficult terrain, cut by rivers and irrigation canals, which will need temporary bridges put over them for the Marines' equipment to cross.
The Marines have seen stiff fighting as they have moved north through Iraq. Yesterday, Marines claimed to have killed at least 80 Iraqi soldiers and taken dozens of prisoners in fighting near Diwaniyah.
But the Marines say they have begun to succeed in winning over villagers. In an operation Monday in the large village of Shatrah, on Route 7 north of Nasiriyah, local people pointed out large stores of ammunition and the local Baath Party operatives and their headquarters.
"We took quite a bit of mortars, maps and records, which we passed on to higher authority," said Capt. Tim Jent, an officer in the 3rd Battalion.
There have been other incidents. Yesterday, a man in a white Toyota pickup truck apparently tried to crash into a Marine roadblock. The vehicle was raked with fire. In an incident Monday, Marines said, a family was apparently forced toward one of their checkpoints and then shot by Iraqi soldiers.
"They shot a little girl, 5 years old," said Sgt. Maj. Jose Martinez, who suggested the Iraqis were trying to stage an incident to cast blame on the Americans. "The Marines were really upset by that."
Restive after a pause of several days, the Marines were grumbling as they piled into their vehicles yesterday evening, but they seemed eager to push forward. Kelly seemed confident. "It's going to be a shock for Saddam," he said, anticipating his troops' crossing the Tigris, "when all of a sudden the south of the country is gone."