While the people of Falluja were waiting for the American onslaught to begin, mosque loudspeakers were rallying the faithful with cries of "Allah is great" and, "Prepare for jihad."
On the outskirts of the city, some American soldiers were holding a service, invoking Christ and having their foreheads anointed with holy oil by a duty chaplain.
"The enemy has got a face. He's called Satan. He lives in Falluja," declared a Marine lieutenant-colonel.
Allah vs. God? Muhammad vs. Jesus? No, only two warring factions finding solace in their respective faiths for the troubles ahead.
This is not the Crusade. But the religious overtones do take on added meaning since the American commander-in-chief, just anointed by his electorate for being a committed Christian, claims that God guides his foreign policy.
So does Osama bin Laden.
So do many of the Iraqi insurgents.
Religion aside, Falluja is a political and strategic disaster. America will lose even if it wins, as it will militarily.
There is, in fact, little or no point left to the offensive. It is being waged because it had taken on a life of its own. The elaborate American military machine, like any big bureaucracy, cannot quickly adjust to changing reality.
Of the estimated 2,000 to 3,000 insurgents in Falluja, half had already fled. There may only be a few hundred left. The rest are busy elsewhere, in nearby Ramdi and Samarra, causing mayhem.
Even faraway Mosul and Tikrit are under attack this week by the insurgents.
The chief rationale for the Falluja offensive was to capture Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist. Trying to force residents into turning him in, the Americans have been bombing the city for two months.
The locals pleaded that they couldn't give what they didn't have.
How many civilians died in that relentless bombardment? We don't know.
Nearly 90 per cent of the 300,000 residents have fled, carrying their belongings in their hands and on their heads. What was their crime?
And what's the crime of the remaining 30,000, if that's how many are still there?
How many will die?
America does not keep count. And it will no doubt describe all the dead as "guerrillas" and "militants."
If the bombing was designed to produce Zarqawi in time for the American election, the actual invasion was held back to avoid the intrusion of possible bad news into the campaign. The Marines stormed the city within hours of George W. Bush's re-election.
To keep alive the fiction that Iraq is run by Iraqis, not Americans, it was said that the attack had been "authorized" by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. But that bit of propaganda only drew attention to the fact that if he had, he did so long after the invasion was well underway.
This, you recall, is the second offensive on the city.
The inconclusive one in April that killed at least 600 people, had to be abandoned in the face of a world outcry.
The story was about the same in Najaf. There, the international outcry was louder, given the desecration and destruction of the Shiite holy sites there.
It was Ayatollah Ali Sistani who provided a face-saving exit for the Americans and the radical cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr.
There's no Sistani in the Sunni heartland.
The clerics in Falluja had already turned against the Americans. Now, the clerics in the national Muslim Scholars Association, representing 3,000 Sunni mosques, have as well.
The Iraqi Islamic Party has quit the Allawi government in protest. President Gazi al-Yawar has publicly criticized his prime minister.
The Sunni scholars are calling for a boycott of the January election, the ostensible new reason for wanting to restore Falluja to government control.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the European Union's Javier Solana had raised fears about just such a boycott.
There's another pattern to American incompetence.
Cities are captured by the use of overwhelming force but are allowed to slip out of control. That's what happened in Falluja, Samarra and elsewhere.
Perhaps it is not incompetence. Perhaps the insurgency is spreading like wildfire. No sooner is one put out than another starts.
America may be losing control of Iraq, as it had in the later stages of Vietnam.
Falluja will be "taken" by destroying it, just as Bush has been "liberating" Iraqis by killing them and Allawi has been leading them to democracy by imposing censorship, curfew and martial law.
But this offensive will no more end the reign of terror than the conquest of other cities did.
In fact, it will stoke the insurgency further, as Sunnis and Shiites and other factions help each other out, as they already are.
Are those men in black that the Americans are encountering in Falluja part of al-Sadr's supposedly disbanded militia?
Road bombings, suicide attacks, hostage taking and the sabotage of oil pipelines are growing exponentially.
Humanitarian and development agencies are leaving by the day. American soldiers and Iraqi civilians, mostly the latter, are dying in record numbers.
But in the topsy-turvy world of George W. Bush — and his constituency of conservative Christians — the Iraq mission is a necessary component of his ongoing war against evil.
Reasonable people may think this is not a Crusade, but the core constituencies on both sides increasingly seem to believe so.
© 2004 Toronto Star