A Solution at Fallujah?

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Plan C — or is it plan D? — for Fallujah involves the Marines withdrawing from their siege lines around the insurgent-held town and allowing one of Saddam Hussein's top former generals to lead a newly constituted Iraqi military unit to go in and restore calm. The new initiative, announced Thursday by local Marine commander Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne, follows days of negotiation with former Iraqi generals and local politicians. It comes three weeks after the Marines first went in to punish those responsible for killing and mutilating four U.S. private security men, and 10 days after the first attempt at a cease-fire brokered by local leaders that required the insurgents to turn over their heavy weapons.

There was some confusion surrounding the new plan Thursday, with at least one senior U.S. official insisting to CNN that no such deal had been struck. Even if it does go through, the proposal to send in a unit cobbled together from recalled elements of Saddam's army (and one that may be more inclined to enforce a cease-fire rather than to actually destroy the insurgents) highlights the strategic dilemma posed by Fallujah.

Hundreds of Iraqis — many of them civilians — appear to have killed in the initial military action that began three weeks ago, prompting a fierce outcry from even Washington's most loyal allies in the Iraqi population. Members of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council threatened to quit, a whole battalion of newly minted Iraqi soldiers under U.S. command refused to fight and the UN diplomat on whom the Bush administration is relying to author a political formula for the hand-over of partial sovereignty in June warned that further military action would imperil his best efforts. "Violent military action by an occupying power against inhabitants of an occupied country will only make matters worse," UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned Wednesday.

The U.S. military's credibility as an occupation force requires that those who would mount an armed challenge from a fixed position be quickly eliminated. But in the case of Fallujah, overwhelming force is plainly at odds with the Coalition's broader strategic goal of winning of broad Iraqi acceptance for a stable transition to sovereignty. Fallujah has already become the rallying point of a growing anti-occupation nationalism among Iraqis — a CNN/USA Today poll released Thursday found that almost two thirds of Iraqis now want U.S. troops to leave immediately — and further military action would inevitably deepen their alienation from the Coalition. Photographs published this week of captives being tortured in a U.S.-run prison outside of Baghdad certainly won't help the hearts and minds effort.

Proceeding politically, via negotiations brokered by Iraqi politicians, is unlikely to achieve the objective of eliminating the insurgents, because they have no intention of surrendering and appear to be acutely aware of the political dilemma facing U.S. forces ranged against them. That much is clear from some of their actions such as firing on U.S. troops from the minaret of a mosque, knowing that the political damage the Coalition would suffer from destroying the minaret would be far greater than the tactical damage the insurgents would suffer from losing a couple of shooters taking refuge in the tower.

Earlier this week, the U.S. had appeared to be shaping once again to pulverize the insurgents, some of whose positions were subjected to three days of pounding by AC-130 gunships, satellite guided bombs and helicopter fired rockets after firing on Marine positions. But the new deal reported Thursday would suggest that the assault may, once again, have been called off to allow for a new political solution. Still, clashes continued into the night on Thursday despite the announcement of a new plan.

The new Iraqi force, the Fallujah Protective Army, is to comprise some 1,100 Sunni Muslim men recruited by four Iraqi generals from among the ranks of the former army and police forces, and will be under the command of General Jasim Muhammad Saleh, a former Republican Guard division commander. The FPA would report to the local Marine commander, and will be charged with subduing insurgent activity in the city to end attacks from there on Coalition forces. Many of the insurgents fighting in Fallujah are believed to be former members of Saddam's Republican Guard and intelligence services, to whom an Iraqi unit comprised of members of the old army and run by a familiar commander may appear to be a friendly force. That may give it the capacity to enforce a cease-fire and end the immediate crisis, although it is questionable whether such a force would be going in for a fight to the finish against the insurgents.

The U.S. has faced an ongoing problem in motivating Iraqi forces to fight the insurgents. After the initial mutiny three weeks ago, comfort was taken in the fact that the 36th Battalion of Iraqi Civil Defense Corps had held firm. Or at least they had until last week. The Iraqi Defense Minister on Wednesday told Britain's Independent newspaper that a unit of the 36th had, in fact, rebelled last week and opted not to continue fighting in Fallujah. More ominously, perhaps, the split reportedly occurred on ethnic lines, with most of the Arab soldiers quitting while the Kurds agreed to fight on.

Renewed attempts to find a political solution in Fallujah question the core assumptions of Coalition leaders about the nature of the enemy. While Bush administration figures continue to portray the insurgents as a combination of Baathist thugs and foreign terrorists who must be eliminated to allow for political progress in Iraq, the United Nations — on whom the Coalition is now relying to produce a workable political formula for ending the occupation of Iraq — is seeing things quite differently. "The more the occupation is seen as taking steps that harm civilians and the population, the greater the ranks of the resistance grows," Annan said Wednesday. Rather than embracing the Coalition's view of a small group of thugs stopping a democratic transition, UN officials — and other diplomats — see the makings of a nationalist challenge to occupation, to which they say there is no military solution. Some 52 of Britain's top retired diplomats advanced a similar view in an extraordinary public rebuke of Tony Blair this week, urging that the UN be given authority "to work with the Iraqis themselves, including those who are now actively resisting the occupation, to clear up the mess."

The British diplomats' proposal — and the logic of pursuing a negotiated settlement in places such as Fallujah — requires treating those waging the insurgency as a legitimate political force and creating non-violent avenues for them to pursue their goals through the political process in a post-occupation Iraq. But that assumes there are significant elements among the insurgents willing to go that route, and also that the Bush administration could countenance a course of action so squarely at odds with much of what it has maintained about Iraq. In the interim, however, the insurgents are unable to prevail militarily but the Coalition is unable to prevail politically.