Tough US tactics quell Fallujah unrest, but at what cost?
City officials and American forces called on militants Monday to turn in their heavy weapons.
BAGHDAD — US marines seal off the hotbed city of Fallujah in Iraq. American snipers approach Vietnam-era kill rates. Foot patrols use portable battering rams to enter through walls, to avoid booby-trapped doors.
President Bush vowed last week that "resolute action" would be used to quell the uprising in Iraq. Monday the hardening US military policy showed signs of working: Fallujah civic leaders called on militants to surrender their heavy weapons; if they do, US forces promised not to resume their offensive against the besieged city.
"It would appear there is an agreed political track," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told reporters Monday. "There is also a very clear understanding ... that should this agreement not go through, Marine forces are more than prepared to carry through with military operations" and could seize Fallujah "in fairly short order."
The standoff highlights the minefield of risks being navigated by the US military, as it toughens its tactics in the face of an insurgency that has erupted to new levels of violence in recent weeks.
The dilemma: How to use forceful tactics - which are widely seen as drawn from Israel's uncompromising playbook, against Palestinian militants - without alienating the entire population.
"Even if we crush the resistance, it is only temporary," warns Charles Smith, head of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona. "There are too many cases, like in Israel, of [US forces] doing target practice on anything that moves. What you are doing is creating more terrorism against yourself."
The price has been high. More Americans (99) have already lost their lives in April than in any other single month, including the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion. Ten times more Iraqis have died, most of them in Fallujah, by the reckoning of US officials - taking the Iraqi toll to at least 900.
The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that the "top sniper" in Fallujah - a corporal from a Midwestern city - had 24 confirmed kills in less than two weeks of conflict. That compares, the paper noted, with the Marine Corps sniper record in Vietnam of 103 kills in 16 months.
What is raising the bar higher for American troops in Iraq, however, is the fact that the enemy may be largely inured to fear, after suffering decades of the most brutal violence at the hands of Saddam Hussein.
The US military has adopted tough-minded Israeli occupation strategies. Longstanding ties between the Pentagon and Israeli Defense Forces have grown much closer since the run-up to the Iraq campaign. Israel has shared advice on counterinsurgency and even allowed US training for urban combat at mock villages in Israel's Negev desert.
Such innovations have so far had limited success in stopping Palestinian suicide bombings, even with an Israeli policy of assassinating key militants. Some senior Israeli military and security chiefs criticize them as counterproductive.
"Jenin does come to mind [in Iraq]," says Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert and former US government intelligence analyst, referring to Israel's controversial two-week siege of that West Bank city in April 2002 that left 52 Palestinians - 22 of them civilians, according to Human Rights Watch - and 23 Israeli soldiers dead. Continuing unrest prompted Israeli forces to storm back three more times that spring.
Ms. Marr questions the US strategy in Fallujah.
"I don't think you can have a good strategy to drain the swamp if you don't know what's in the swamp," says Ms. Marr, who spoke by telephone from Doha, Qatar. "I don't think the entire [Iraqi] population wants to see us fail there. [But] we saw what happened in Jenin - you must hit them hard, and not kill all of Fallujah."
Concern has also been voiced by US allies. A senior British Army officer in southern Iraq, quoted last week in London's Daily Telegraph, said: "My view and the view of the British chain of command is that the Americans' use of violence is not proportionate and is overresponsive to the threat they are facing."
Tentative cease-fires on two fronts - against Sunni and perhaps foreign insurgents in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, and Shiite militants loyal to the fiercely anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in southern Iraq - have brought relative calm.
But American vows to destroy the insurgents and "kill or capture" Mr. Sadr and his black-clad militia - groups that were once marginal, at best - are feeding increasingly wide support among Iraqis, and turning Fallujah into a new anti-US rallying cry.
"[US forces] are going through the iron wall syndrome," says Mr. Smith, referring to the post-World War II Zionist creed adopted by some leaders in the newbornstate of Israel, which holds that Arabs should be dealt with only from a position of unassailable power. By the 1950s, the idea had been refined to ensure disproportionate casualties, so that Israeli blood would appear to be more costly than Arab blood.
The reaction is clear for many Iraqis. The walls of Baghdad are growing crowded with fresh graffiti that underscore how Fallujah has become the beacon of resistance. "Long live the Holy War!" reads a common refrain, along with "Long live Fallujah! Long live the Mahdi army!" and "Death to America!"
"In Fallujah [Americans] are acting out of proportion to [the deaths of four US contractors]. I understand their anger, but they get poor marks," says Gailan Ramiz, a Harvard-educated political scientist in Baghdad. "I am convinced now, they created a situation where Iraqis are in total psychological revolt."
Iraqis solidly back Palestinians against Israel, so pursuing methods similar to Israel's "is a great error, since the US is not imperial, and doesn't have the same interests as Israel," says Ramiz. "So why use the tactics of the Israelis? Iraqis accepted Saddam, as the Spanish accepted Franco. But for a foreign army to do this sparks nationalist fervor."
Mr. Bush last week declared that there was "no safe alternative to resolute action" to regain control. But as US troops dig in, Middle East history shows that total control often comes at a very high price.
Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad set the precedent in 1982, when he ordered the sealing off and shelling of entire districts of the city of Hama to get at Muslim Brotherhood activists. Bulldozers finished the job, leaving some 10,000 people dead. Islamists did not reemerge for more than two decades in Syria.
Saddam Hussein is infamous for gassing 5,000 Kurds in 1988, and killing tens of thousands of accused opponents and other Iraqis over the years. This is one reason Washington toppled the regime, but it has not been easy to intimidate Iraqi insurgents.
"Fear, fear, and executions" is how Hussein maintained control, explains a former Iraqi special-forces officer, who is no stranger to danger. In the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, he conducted seven operations behind enemy lines as part of a six-man team armed with a rifle, knife, appetite suppressant pills, and an explosive belt to be used if capture was inevitable.
But the revenge meted out by the regime that he witnessed in March 1991 - as the postwar uprising against the Iraqi leader by Iraqi Kurds in the north and Shiite rebels in the south was at its peak - still brings tears to his eyes.
"It is something you can't describe," he says, as he talks about being tasked to guard a bus from Baghdad with 16 Iraqi Shiites accused of taking part in the uprising. In what was the most fearful moment of his life, the officer was asked to don a gas mask and escort the prisoners. Blindfolded and handcuffed, the Shiites were led into a large chamber and thrown into a pool full of acid.
Americans should be mindful of this lesson, for what it says about Iraqi standards of intimidation. "Iraqis are used to being punished," says the officer. "They are used to fear."