Fallujah strike under scrutiny
US officials say foreign insurgents were the target of a Saturday airstrike that killed at least 20 people.
BAGHDAD — The US strike against alleged Islamist militants in Fallujah that killed 20 people on Saturday did more than break the fragile calm in that city: It highlighted how difficult it will be for US and increasingly assertive Iraqi officials to work together once limited sovereignty is handed over to Iraq.
US officials say they were striking a house used by militants in the network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian with close ties to Al Qaeda. But Iraqi security officers quickly disputed that notion.
"The inhabitants of the houses were ordinary families," Col. Mohammed Awad told the Associated Press. Colonel Awad, a senior officer in the Fallujah Brigade, said his men had determined after the strike that no foreigners were present.
The apparent breakdown in communications between Marines and the Iraqi force shows how difficult it will be to keep US and Iraqi security goals aligned as the country's transition moves forward.
In a press conference Sunday, Iraq's new Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said he welcomed the US attack in Fallujah and that fighting terrorism would be the principal element of his security strategy, adding that he may declare "emergency law" in some areas.
But he also hinted that Iraqi forces will be increasingly deployed under his rule and promised to assert more control over security decisions. He said that US forces informed him of the attack in Fallujah only shortly before the strike. "This pattern will change" after the June 30 handover, Mr. Allawi said.
The extent to which US forces will be willing to sit back and leave matters in Iraqi hands remains to be seen. Colonel Patrick Lang, a former head of Middle East and Terrorism Intelligence at the Department of Defense and now in the private sector, thinks the US will have to leave major decisions in Allawi's hands for the good of the country.
He says if they don't, unpopular offensives could damage the government's efforts to win domestic support and consolidate. In the near term, that may force the US to accept Iraqi compromises in places like Fallujah.
"I think there is a disconnect here between the American view of this as almost a kind of law-enforcement exercise, that these are bad people ... and they should be arrested and brought to justice,'' says Colonel Lang. "On the other hand the Iraqis see this as a political situation and that accommodations have to be made."
Colonel Lang says US and Iraqi security objectives will probably clash as time goes on, particularly with an emerging group of Iraqi politicians taking the reins who are going to have to try to build consensus for their rule inside the country.
"It's going to be a big mistake if Allawi is seen as carrying out our will," he says.
When the US Marines withdrew from positions in Fallujah six weeks ago, after an offensive that killed roughly 700 residents, they had misgivings over whether the 1,500 member Fallujah Brigade would do what the US had created it to do - take over principal responsibility for pacifying the city.
But something new had to be tried in light of fighting there turning a major swath of Iraqi public opinion against the US occupation.
At the time, the Marines said they wanted the brigade to root out militants in the city through relationships with locals, particularly foreign Arab fighters that the US says have turned Fallujah into their principal logistics base.
But the Marines were also skeptical that the Iraqi forces would aggressively target the insurgents and some predicted they'd eventually take matters into their own hands again.
That's what happened on Saturday, with the first major US strike in the city since the beginning of May. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said a building reduced to rubble by a powerful American bomb was being used as a safe-house by "terrorists" and pointed to "numerous secondary explosions" at the site after the attack as evidence that bombs were being assembled there.
General Kimmitt said the US had "strong, actionable" intelligence to strike at the house. Though the house was in a crowded neighborhood, Kimmitt said that precision weapons were used to hit the house and that "collateral damage estimates [were] well within our rules of engagement."
But the decision to strike the alleged militants rather than send in the Fallujah Brigade to make arrests or engage the men with small-arms fire indicates a lack of confidence in the brigade, whose leaders have often been at odds with US commanders in their public statements.
The US deems Mr. Zarqawi, whose whereabouts are unknown, to be Public Enemy No. 1 inside Iraq. They allege he has been behind many of the suicide attacks that have plagued Iraq. Although US officials are unsure of his whereabouts, he has a bastion of support in Fallujah where US officials say he has frequently been seen.
US officials describe Zarqawi as an Afghan-trained militant with a dream of creating a Sunni theocracy across the region and a desire to derail any efforts toward a peaceful transition in Iraq.
There is certainly much passive support for him in Fallujah, a religious town with many preachers who adhere to an austere, intolerant brand of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. More broadly, many Iraqis are skeptical that he's behind many attacks, and see the residents of Fallujah as victims of US aggression, rather than harborers of major terrorists.
That will make it tough for Allawi to pursue alleged domestic militants in Fallujah with as much zeal as the US would like, analysts say, though he's undoubtedly interested in undercutting the ability of foreign ihadis to hit at his authority.
The US should wait and see "what kinds of compromises they're working out [in Fallujah] and see if it's working as a political accommodation,'' says Lang.