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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.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 20, 2004


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.

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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.

Israeli influence

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."