War by Fits and Starts

Why Fallujah won't be the last bloody battle in the race to pacify Iraq in time for its elections

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The long-awaited assault on Fallujah was officially dubbed Operation Dawn, to signify the promise of a new beginning. But the name the U.S. military had originally given the operation--Phantom Fury--seems more appropriate for the kind of war U.S. forces are fighting. At times the soldiers and Marines trawling Fallujah's alleyways feel as though they are chasing ghosts. Insurgents vanish as the armored columns rumble into town, only to reappear somewhere else, firing from minarets and hiding in houses booby-trapped to blow up. U.S. and Iraqi officials say that their forces have killed as many as 1,000 enemy fighters and that most of the ravaged city is under U.S. control. If the goal, as a senior U.S. official says, is to "break up the scorpion's nest'' that Fallujah has become, the military is willing to inflict as much punishment as needed to achieve it.

But after a week that witnessed the most brutal up-close combat conducted by the U.S. military since Somalia, victory over the insurgency in Iraq isn't necessarily any closer. Many fighters and the majority of the rebel leadership--including Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the most wanted terrorist in Iraq--apparently slipped out of the city in the weeks leading up to the assault. A Pentagon official says that at most, 10% of the enemy in Iraq has been killed or captured in Fallujah. As the U.S. fights there, violence is rippling across the center and north of Iraq, engulfing the increasingly restive city of Mosul, the third largest in the country. The violence has raised the prospect that the siege of Fallujah could be a prelude to a series of nasty urban street fights--precisely the sort of war the U.S. military had desperately hoped to avoid when the invasion started in the spring of 2003.

U.S. commanders acknowledge that Fallujah is only the beginning. But they hope that the show of force there is the first step toward gradually eroding the insurgents' ability to coordinate activities around the country. Senior U.S. officials say the coming months will be like playing a deadly game of "whack a mole" across the country: attacking insurgents wherever they rise up and trying to take back enough rebel-held areas to hold credible elections in January. The U.S. does not have enough soldiers in Iraq to crush a growing insurgency in multiple locations at the same time. But officials believe they won't actually face that challenge. As messy as the Sunni triangle and Mosul now appear, so long as the insurgency doesn't ignite a nationwide conflagration, the Pentagon believes it can contain the threat. "What we're trying to do in the short term, through the elections, is make sure that there are no no-go zones," says a senior Western diplomat in Baghdad. "To the extent possible, we [will] attrit their capability to launch violent attacks."

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