What We Learn from Fallujah

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FALLUJAH, IRAQ: Lance Corp. Mitch Hanf secures a stairwell in a building in southeastern Fallujah

As the dust settles on what may only be the first phase of the battle of Fallujah, the emerging picture holds telling clues on the prospects for the U.S. mission in Iraq. Much has clearly gone badly wrong in what the U.S. military had announced would be a precise, targeted operation to capture or kill the men responsible for a grisly attack two weeks ago on four U.S. private security men. Five days of fighting between Marines and insurgents holed up in the town has left some 600 Iraqis dead, according to local hospitals. And U.S. spokesman have reported that around 70 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq over the past 12 days. The fighting in Fallujah has ebbed since Sunday because of a cease-fire brokered between the Marines and the insurgents by Iraqi intermediaries — a cease-fire that U.S. commanders on the ground are not particularly confident will hold, or yield the objective of securing the surrender of the insurgents responsible.

But the very fact of the U.S. decision to suspend offensive action in order to allow what Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt called "the political track and the discussion track to go forward" speaks volumes about the nature of the problem confronting the U.S. in Fallujah and elsewhere. U.S. officials have tended to characterize the Sunni insurgency as the work of Baathist "bitter-enders" and expatriate terrorists — not the sort of folks with whom the U.S. maintains a "discussion track." But the reality of Fallujah is plainly a lot messier: Brig.-Gen. Kimmitt insists the Iraqis killed there are almost all insurgents, but local hospital sources insist most were civilians. The scale of the casualties, and the pause for negotiations suggests that instead of isolating a group of desperadoes, the U.S. has confronted broad opposition in Fallujah.

Inadvertent nation-building?

And it's not only the scale of resistance in Fallujah that has shocked U.S. officials in Iraq. The Shiite insurrection launched by the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr has proven surprisingly tenacious, and U.S. military actions against Sadr supporters in the Shiite slums of Baghdad have also provoked widespread outrage in Iraq's majority ethnic community. The two-front insurrection and the tough response by the U.S. has even had an ironic nation-building effect, as the plight of the besieged city has become an anti-American rallying point across Iraq's traditional Sunni-Shiite divide. Thousands of impoverished Shiites in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood have stepped forward to donate blood and food supplies for Fallujah's defenders, while portraits of the Shiite firebrand Sadr have been carried by protestors in towns throughout the Sunni Triangle. Even some of the key U.S. allies on the Iraqi Governing Council have expressed outrage over the military operation — Adnan Pachachi, a member of the IGC's rotating presidency known for his temperate diplomatic style denounced the U.S. action at Fallujah as "illegal and unacceptable."

Governing Council in crisis

Pachachi's harsh words signal a crisis for the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, which is currently Washington's most likely candidate for assuming the sovereign power that the Bush administration hopes to transfer on June 30. Iyad Alawi, another long-time U.S. ally in the rotating presidency of the IGC resigned at the weekend, as did the IGC's human rights minister, and others warned that they may follow suit. The Council was not consulted about the U.S. plans in Fallujah and to go after the Sadr movement. Instead, Council members found themselves having to defend themselves in the face of a furious public reaction, and they've done so mostly by distancing themselves from the Americans. Even more worrying for the U.S. is the fact that many of the Iraqi security forces that Washington had hoped would increasingly share the security burden in Iraq appear to have felt a similar impulse to distance themselves from U.S. operations — most graphically when a battalion of Iraqi soldiers refused orders to go to Fallujah, returning to their barracks rather than fight against fellow Iraqis. And when Iraqi police were confronted by Sadr supporters at towns in the south, many simply walked away from their stations, and some actually joined the rebels. Nor was the performance of some of the Coalition garrison troops in the south particularly encouraging for the Pentagon: They'd been deployed expecting to be doing mostly civil affairs work, and when they found themselves under fire, there were a number of calls for urgent U.S. assistance. Holding the line in Iraq now that confrontations are occurring in the Shiite south, too, is raising pressure on the U.S. to send more of its own troops to Iraq.

More immediately, the response of the IGC and the Iraqi security forces to the events of the past week has raised serious doubts over the viability of the U.S. plan to transfer authority on June 30 to an as-yet undetermined Iraqi interim government. Even Kuwait, Washington's closest ally in the Arab world and the staging ground for the invasion, warned on Sunday that Iraq would break apart if the Bush administration insists on sticking to a June 30 deadline that it says would inevitably result in a weak Iraqi government.

Any suggestions?

It's not only the June 30 plan that's in jeopardy as a result of the dynamics revealed over the past week in Fallujah and elsewhere. There's a growing sense that the Bush administration does not have a clear plan for responding to a growing political crisis in Iraq whose scale it has been reluctant to acknowledge. Thus the rather unusual comment by President Bush on Sunday that the U.S. is "open to suggestions" on ways of reducing violence in Iraq. Iraqis on the Governing Council appear to have stepped forward with solutions of their own, negotiating cease-fires both in Fallujah and also with the Sadrists in the South. Seven members of the IGC reportedly met Moqtada Sadr in Najaf at the weekend and secured an agreement under which his forces would withdraw from police stations and government buildings they'd occupied, in exchange for undertakings to address his political demands and, according to some reports, to shelve a warrant for his arrest.

Brigadier General Kimmitt, however, insists the U.S. has no knowledge or part of any such deals, and that its policy remains that Moqtada must either be captured or killed. But like in Fallujah, this hard line on the Sadrists adopted against the advice of its allies in the IGC may paint the U.S. into a tactical corner. It will be hard-pushed, for example, to ease the siege of Fallujah while leaving the insurgent structure there intact, or to back off its vow to "destroy" Sadr's militia. And yet in both cases sticking to those goals are alienating growing sections of Iraqi society. It's not that they necessarily support Sadr or the insurgency, but they're increasingly outraged by the U.S. response and the mounting toll of Iraqi casualties.

Unpalatable choices

Unlike their patron, a number of IGC members appear to recognize the Sunni insurgents and the Sadr supporters as an intractable reality — they're rooted in sections of Iraqi society, and won't be eliminated simply through military action. The dilemma facing U.S. officials on the ground is likely to become even more acute in the coming days given the efforts of IGC members to mediate solutions both in Fallujah and in the south. If the U.S. declines to accept those outcomes — which are not exactly palatable to the U.S. given its stated objectives in each case — the result will be to further weaken the IGC, and make its members more reluctant to accept a governing role after June 30 that would leave the U.S. military in charge of security, and potentially pursuing the current counterinsurgency effort that has alienated so many Iraqis.

The resistance by insurgents at Fallujah and Sadr supporters in the south lacks the ability to challenge the U.S. military in a tactical sense — the Pentagon can be pretty sure of winning any battlefield engagement that presents itself in Iraq. But the military also appears to be without political progress, they'll have to fight the same battles again and again. And in the classic dynamic of occupation, insurgency and counterinsurgency, the past week has served as a reminder that fighting those battles always raises the risk of losing the peace by turning even Iraqis who don't support the radicals more and more firmly against the U.S. Whatever the battle plan for Fallujah, the Bush administration's plan for winning the peace in Iraq now may be in store for yet another revision.