The Grim Calculations of Retaking Fallujah

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BATTLE-READY: U.S. Marines in position on the outskirts of Fallujah

In a pep talk to U.S. troops ahead their invasion of Fallujah on Sunday, the senior enlisted Marine in Iraq, Sgt. Major Carlton Kent drew inspiration from great Marine triumphs of the past. "You're all in the process of making history," he told them. "This is another Hue city in the making."

Kent's analogy to the 25-day battle in 1968 to wrest control of the old Vietnamese colonial capital from guerrilla insurgents may be somewhat unfortunate, however. Although Hue has entered Marine lore as an example of a triumph of urban warfare, made more vivid by its recreation in Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," a favorite movie on Marine bases, the wider context of Hue may give pause for thought — or even alarm. To be sure, the enemy the Marines are facing in the fierce fighting for Fallujah that began overnight Monday may be not dissimilar from the once they encountered at Hue. Both are fiercely determined guerrilla fighters motivated by a combination of nationalism and ideology, capable of great cruelty and dug in so deep in the urban landscape that they had to be rooted out building by building. But while Hue was an heroic triumph, at the cost of some 580 fatalities for the Marines and other U.S. and South Vietnamese units who went in to recapture a city audaciously seized by insurgents, winning the battle did not help the American side win the war. And it's far from clear that victory in Fallujah, rendered somewhat inevitable by the massive advantage in men and firepower of the U.S.-led operation, will prove more successful than Hue in turning the tide of the conflict.

Fallujah has become the keystone to the U.S. effort to stabilize Iraq precisely because it is the one city in Iraq over which insurgents have brazenly taken control. That makes it an epicenter of the resistance that has bedeviled U.S. efforts to smooth the transition to Iraqi self-rule on terms set out by Washington and its allies. Not only has insurgent Fallujah become a symbol that allows young Iraqis to believe in the possibility that violent resistance can prevail and therefore encourages some to join the insurgency; U.S. commanders also believe it is the headquarters of the Tawhid and Jihad organization of the Jordanian fugitive Musab al-Zarqawi, which has claimed responsibility for numerous terror attacks and gruesome beheadings in Iraq and which is recently reported to have aligned itself with al-Qaeda.

Reversing the tide?

Retaking Fallujah has been designated the top priority in a broader campaign to stem the tide of an insurgency which U.S. officials concede has actually grown stronger since last June's hand-over of political authority to the Allawi government. The broader objective guiding the security strategy of the U.S.-led coalition is to create sufficient stability by January to allow for a national election to choose Iraq's new leaders — and there'd be little chance of holding a credible poll throughout the Sunni triangle and even in Baghdad if the insurgency was permitted to maintain its current momentum. The Coalition hopes that the insurgency can be stopped in its tracks, or at least that its momentum can be slowed, by smashing what has come to be seen as its epicenter.

To that end, up to 15,000 U.S. and British troops have been deployed in a ring of steel around the town, intending to cut off any lines of retreat from insurgents who may seek to disperse and fight on elsewhere, and then methodically retake it street by street. Although formal political control of the operation is in the hands of the Allawi government — the interim prime minister gave the attack order Monday — the Iraqi forces deployed there are very much in a support role to the Marine spearhead. Indeed, the battle is also considered a major test of the Iraqi forces' ability to stand and fight against the insurgents, and while the work of an Iraqi commando unit in seizing Fallujah's hospital may offer grounds for optimism, that could also be offset by the reported desertion of hundreds of Iraqi troops that had been deployed on the Fallujah frontline.

The battle to dislodge an estimated 3,000-4,000 insurgents from an urban area will necessarily be bloody, and involve civilian casualties — even if much of the civilian population has already fled. Although U.S. and Iraqi forces have acted to minimize the negative publicity of such casualties by seizing control of the city's main hospital overnight on Monday — previously a source of many televised claims that coalition forces had inflicted civilian casualties — many Iraqi and international actors invested in the transition process remain concerned that a frontal assault on Fallujah could have the opposite political effect to the one desired.

The political calculus

The leading Sunni Muslim clerical body, the Association of Muslim Scholars, which is viewed as allied with the insurgency, has condemned the assault and warned of an escalation of the insurgency elsewhere. And, of course, it has reiterated its call for a boycott of the January election. Others, like UN Secretary General Kofi Annan have warned that if the assault of Fallujah creates a backlash that keeps Sunnis away from the polls, then the operation will have been self-defeating. Even acting president Ghazi al-Yawer, the most senior Sunni figure in Allawi's government, has publicly warned that a bloody showdown would play into the hands of the insurgency, adding that "the way the Coalition is handling the crisis is wrong." But on Monday, Allawi emphasized that he'd received Yawer's blessing for his state of emergency declaration.

Allawi and the Coalition have calculated that they have no option but to take the pain of the "surgery" required to restore control over Fallujah, and their battlefield plans will be designed to make the operation quick and decisive. The last time the Marines were sent into Fallujah, in April, they were pulled back as U.S. officials felt the heat of a political backlash spurred by the images of civilian casualties beamed around the world by al-Jazeera cameramen inside the city. This time, however, the political echelon in Washington and Baghdad is unlikely to hit the brakes. It's a go-for-broke strategy, not least because any retreat now would simply empower and embolden the insurgents.

The insurgents have not simply been waiting for the Marines in Fallujah. Instead, they have dramatically escalated their actions elsewhere, killing 85 people in a series of attacks throughout the Sunni triangle and in Baghdad since Friday, possibly hoping that opening up new fronts away from Fallujah might ease pressure on the city and also to signal that even after the city falls, the fight will continue elsewhere. Particularly symbolic in that respect were Friday's coordinated bomb and mortar attacks in Samarra, a town recaptured from rebels by U.S. and Iraqi forces only weeks ago.

Of even greater concern to Allawi and his backers than insurgent actions elsewhere, however, may be the political fallout from Fallujah. The battle's long-term impact will be measured in light of the contest between the Coalition and the insurgents for Sunni hearts and minds in Iraq. The insurgency has been sustained by a strong nationalist sentiment among Sunnis, who had been the dominant social group in Saddam Hussein's Iraq — indeed, ever since the country was first created by Britain. A widely held sense of uncertainty over their future as a minority in a democratic Iraq had been compounded by decisions by the Coalition to dissolve the old army and bar former members of the Baath party from much of public life, cutting off two major sources of Sunni influence. Coalition partners and allies have long warned that unless Sunnis can be persuaded to join the political process and participate in the elections, the community will provide a long-term base for an insurgency that could keep Iraq unstable for the foreseeable future. And if the military campaign to recapture the city further alienates Sunni Arab Iraqis, they may stay away from the polls regardless of who controls Fallujah. That's precisely what Yawer and others fear. Then again, there wasn't much chance of voters lining up at polling stations throughout the Sunni triangle as long as insurgent flags fly over Fallujah.