After Fallujah

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PATRICK BAZ / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

BATTLE'S END: U.S. Marines supervise the collection of dead bodies in Fallujah

The battle for Fallujah is won — at least for now. The city's insurgent defenders ultimately proved no match for the awesome organization and firepower brought to bear by some 15,000 U.S. and allied troops, and resistance appears to have been mostly overcome within six days of fierce fighting. But despite the decisive tactical victory, the battle to recapture Fallujah has also produced indicators suggesting that winning the counterinsurgency war in Iraq may have become even more difficult.

The Marines and other U.S. units that fought their way to the heart of the city street by street displayed mesmerizing combat capability, bringing to bear withering firepower from land and air against which the those insurgents who stood and fought had no chance of surviving. U.S. forces retook the city at a cost of 38 casualties against the upward of 1,000 insurgents they claim to have killed. The number of civilian casualties remains unknown — the U.S. military and Iraqi interim government insists the number is negligible, but media sources suggest there may have been substantial numbers of Iraqi civilians killed and wounded, whose fate will be known once the fighting ends and the media and aid workers gain access to the city.

Most of the insurgents, particularly their key leadership cadre, do not, however, appear to have stood and fought. Instead, they behaved as guerrillas typically do when confronting overwhelmingly superior firepower by simply dispersing to attack elsewhere. A number stayed behind, some no doubt on promises of "martyrdom" and lionization in a kind of insurgent "Alamo" mythology. These men appear to have been mostly Iraqis — the U.S. commander in Iraq, General George Casey, said Monday that of the more than 1,000 men captured in the fight for the city, only 15 are confirmed foreign fighters.

But even as they began rolling into Fallujah a week ago, U.S. field commanders warned that hundreds of the insurgents had already slipped away, having known for months that a frontal assault was coming. These insurgents, and others located elsewhere throughout the Sunni areas in Baghdad and to the north responded to the Fallujah offensive by taking to the streets of cities from the capital all the way up to Mosul, emerging from the shadows in groups numbering up to 50 fighters at a time to brazenly confront U.S. and Iraqi government forces in broad daylight. Within a day of pronouncing Fallujah essentially over, U.S. forces were mounting a major offensive in Mosul, aimed at returning Iraqi policemen to police stations throughout the western half of the city that had fallen into insurgent hands. And Ramadi, Samarrah, Baquba, Tal Afar and Baghdad itself have all seen intensified rebel attacks over the past week.

The pattern on display for the past week raises the question of how the U.S. and its allies plan to maintain control. In Samarrah, cleared of insurgents by U.S. forces working with Iraqi troops some six weeks ago, the U.S. left behind Iraqi troops on garrison duty to safeguard reconstruction efforts, and the idea is to follow a similar model in Fallujah. But over the past two weeks, the insurgency has proved itself to be very much alive in Samarrah, with insurgents taking a heavy toll on the Iraqi security forces. And the tactics that the insurgents employed in and around Fallujah suggest there's good reason to suspect they are likely to begin reentering the city along with the returning civilian population, resuming attacks on Iraqi and any U.S. forces that remain once the main combat force begins withdrawing.

Fallujah so far has done little to assuage doubts over the capability and reliability of the Iraqi forces. Those deployed in the city have mostly been used to search areas already cleared by the U.S. forces — hence the far lower casualty figure among the Iraqis, who are reported to have lost only five men. Reports of hundreds of desertions shortly before the battle from one Iraqi unit deployed on the frontline around Fallujah, and the disappointment expressed by the U.S. commander at Mosul over the fact that most of the Iraqi police in the city had simply fled their stations when attacked by insurgents are a sobering reality-check on hopes for deploying Iraqi forces around the Sunni triangle as the day-to-day mainstay against the insurgency. Maintaining security in the Sunni areas ahead of the planned January election may still require far more extensive garrison deployments of U.S. troops, which stretches their resources and leaves them more vulnerable to insurgent attacks.

Militarily, of course, the insurgents may be forced to adapt their operating methods in the wake of losing Fallujah, which had functioned as a sanctuary that could provide a center for logistics, training and command for operations throughout northern Iraq and the capital. And the fact that a large-scale offensive in Mosul has followed so hard on the heels of Fallujah suggests U.S. commanders are determined to keep the guerrillas on the back foot and prevent the emergence of any new sanctuaries in which they're allowed to operate unmolested. Battles are likely to rage throughout the mostly Sunni areas for weeks and even months ahead as the U.S. and its allies seek to create a climate facilitating elections, while the insurgents aim to sabotage their efforts.

The primary strategic purpose of recapturing Fallujah, however, was to facilitate Sunni participation in the January election, and more generally in the post-Saddam order authored by the U.S. And while the military operation, if followed by a substantial troop presence in the city, may facilitate the opening of polling stations in Fallujah, that fact alone may not be enough to encourage Sunni voters to turn out. Indeed, the operation in Fallujah strengthened calls to boycott the election by the Association of Muslim Scholars, an organization influential among Sunni clerics, and prompted the main Sunni political party to withdraw from the Allawi government.

Of even greater concern for the Allawi government, however, may be the impact of the battle for Fallujah on its credibility. As the battle began, Allawi announced that he'd ordered the offensive because those with whom his government had been negotiating in Fallujah had stubbornly refused to hand over Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian fugitive who has claimed responsibility for numerous terror strikes and hostage beheadings throughout Iraq. The delegates from Fallujah had insisted they could not hand over Zarqawi because he was not, in fact, present in the city. Whether or not this claim was true at the time, if the dust settles on a city destroyed in order to weed out Zarqawi and his band of foreign fighters and they are nowhere to be found, Iraqis may be inclined to agree with acting President Ghazi al-Yawer's warning that launching a full-scale invasion of Fallujah because of Zarqawi and his band would be like shooting a horse in order to kill the fly on its back. Moreover, in the course of the battle, Arab TV channels showed Americans, rather than Iraqis in charge on the ground, for example when an Iraqi Red Crescent relief convoy was turned away — to the alarm even of some Iraqi national guard commanders. Nor will the government's case be helped by the spectacle of U.S. troops arresting leading Sunni clerics and politicians sympathetic to the insurgency in Baghdad, or the widely televised image of a Marine apparently shooting dead an unarmed insurgent inside a mosque. Nor will the images of death and destruction that emerge from the ruined city help bolster the government’s case, even though the U.S. plans to quickly spend $100 million on rebuilding the city, in the hope of winning over Fallujah residents.

Rather than ending major combat operations against the insurgency, the victory at Fallujah will likely see their focus shift elsewhere — to Mosul, Ramadi and other new flashpoints. And while counterinsurgency operations will likely to continue for months ahead, both before and after January, the election date now makes the political battle for Sunni hearts and minds, rendered ever more challenging by the fact of ongoing combat, a race against the clock.