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Behind Fallujah strategy

The US hopes a hard strike on the city will send a message to other militants.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 29, 2004


No city has earned the rallying cry of Iraq's insurgents more than Fallujah - the inhospitable sprawl west of Baghdad that has become the nerve center for the anti-American guerrilla war.

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For US forces, too, Fallujah is becoming a rallying cry: A city where Iraq's nationwide insurgency must be dealt a deathblow to convince other insurgent-held cities to capitulate before January elections.

US commanders and Iraq's interim government agree that Fallujah must be wrested from the militants who have largely controlled it since last April. But even as US Marines prepare to reoccupy the city, analysts are asking if the spreading footprint and increasing sophistication of guerrilla cells across Iraq mean that any victory there may be shortlived - and fail to end wider militant violence.

"One thought going around now is: 'Why doesn't Iraq look like [post-World War II] Germany or Japan, which knew they had been defeated?' " says John Pike, a military analyst who heads in Alexandria, Va. "One of the challenges we are facing now is these people don't know they have been defeated," he says. "Fallujah will be an opportunity for them to be crushed decisively and for them to taste defeat."

Few doubt that marines are capable of retaking Fallujah, especially after two months of nightly air strikes, which US officials say have cut into guerrilla ranks and the network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the militant leader who in the past week changed his group's name to Al Qaeda in Iraq.

But when the city first became the focus of a US standoff with insurgents last April, an initial attempt by marines to retake the town of 300,000 - which was called off by Washington when only one-third of the city was under control - sparked violence across Iraq as well as global protest. Some 100 Americans and more than 600 Iraqis died in the battles.

The fight this time is expected to be just as bloody, experts say. And the spread of the insurgency - with its greater destructive expertise, numerous cells, and as many as 20,000 recruits across Iraq - means that a Fallujah triumph alone may not end the insurgency.

"The logic is: You flatten Fallujah, hold up the head of Fallujah, and say 'Do our bidding, or you're next,' " says Toby Dodge, an Iraq analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. "The reason for such [threats] is because there are not enough troops, which creates a security vacuum, which fuels the insurgency."

The US strategy is to hand over Fallujah and other trouble spots to newly trained Iraqi forces once they are under US control, as was done in Samarra earlier this month.

Such plans coincide with reports of a Pentagon effort to boost US troop numbers from the current 138,000 in Iraq before the critical January vote. Some troops would stay in Iraq longer; other units would arrive earlier than planned.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has threatened to invade Fallujah if city elders and sheikhs don't hand over Mr. Zarqawi and foreign militants. Mr. Allawi told his cabinet on Tuesday to "expect an escalation in terrorist acts," and that "more extremists have entered Fallujah [to keep] the situation volatile."