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US tips toward restraint in Fallujah

Over the weekend, US forces around the insurgent city held off from assault in favor of more pinpointed security measures.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 26, 2004


The US Marine sniper hadn't slept all night, but it was hard to tell under the layers of camouflage face paint.

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He was back at home base after a night battle that left some 30 insurgents dead. "Recon found [the insurgents], they were engaged, and then Specter gunships let loose," said the sniper. "They are no more."

The sniper is at the sharp end of an increasingly successful hunt for guerrillas that is giving US Marines pause as they weigh the possibility of an all-out assault on Fallujah.

Tuesday, US troops will begin joint patrols with Iraqi security forces inside Fallujah in an attempt to gradually restore control over the insurgent stronghold without a major attack. Fallujah presents US officials with a difficult nut to crack. They cannot cede control of the city to the 2,000 or so insurgents now there. But a full-scale assault - accompanied by likely civilian casualties - could turn large segments of the Iraqi population against the US, and derail plans to construct a democratic stronghold in the Middle East.

Tough threats from US commanders that insurgents in Fallujah had just "days not weeks" to hand in their weapons gave way over the weekend to a less strident tone.

"If we don't do this absolutely correctly, we will incur damage to the end state we seek," warns Col. John Coleman, chief of staff of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force that controls western Iraq.

Instead of bringing enough stability to hand over control to a future Iraqi government, he says the stand-off over Fallujah is a very complex "small war" and "we're deep in it."

To decide future steps, all senior US civilian and military chiefs for Iraq met at Camp Fallujah (seven miles east of the city) on Saturday. At the same time, President Bush and his national security aides held a conference call with Gen. John Abizaid, commander of all US forces in the Mideast, to focus on Iraq and Fallujah.

The series of meetings at this base Saturday - which also included local leaders from Fallujah - agreed that joint US-Iraqi police patrols would begin on Tuesday, and that new rules would forbid weapons on the streets. Terms of the ceasefire, which included a handover of all heavy weapons, have not been met.

At 109 American deaths in Iraq already, and hundreds more Iraqi guerrillas and civilians, April is the deadliest month yet. A marine offensive, commanders predict, would be costly - and possibly counter-productive.

Colonel Coleman uses a painting analogy to describe the complexities of the frontline - and how to balance the amount of force used, with the amount of diplomacy. "I'm looking for a Rembrandt solution, and I don't have it yet. I'm still mixing colors and testing strokes," Coleman says. "We can paint by numbers - that's easy, that's what we're best at. But that's not the right solution."

A military solution is always possible, no matter how much time is spent looking for a peaceful way out. "If it fails, I can always go kinetic," Coleman adds. "That's always there."