Failing in Fallujah

Forcing democracy onto a terrorist-prone Arab nation like Iraq was the most radical idea of the Bush administration after 9/11. The idea was born of neoconservatism, and then enshrined in the national security strategy. Yet this aspect of the Iraq war was little debated in the campaign.

On the terrorist front, the question immediately after the election is this: How far will President Bush take this nation-building-at-gunpoint in the coming days?

The invasion of Iraq in April 2003 was the first big test but an incomplete one. The US failed to stabilize the Sunni triangle, leaving that Muslim minority worried about its future as the majority Shiites maneuvered to dominate Iraq.

With Mr. Bush and Iraq's interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi rushing to hold elections by Jan. 31, they face a very big fly in the ointment of their democracy: Not only is the Sunni city of Fallujah (population 300,000) out of government control and in the hands of some 15,000 fighters, it's also a main source for terrorist-style bombings in much of Iraq.

The legitimacy of the Iraq elections, and indeed the Bush strategy, is now at stake if Fallujah remains a volcano of Sunni political dissent and an exporter of explosive mayhem.

That's why US forces and newly trained Iraqi troops are massing outside Fallujah, preparing to retake the city any day. The pending battle, if it takes place at all, encapsulates the inherent contradiction of using force to defeat militants while also trying to impose a peaceful, antiterrorist democracy.

The message: "Accept these ballots or face our bullets."

Can a battle be avoided? The root of the violence coming out of Fallujah appears to be mainly a Sunni fear of being subjugated by Shiites after the election. Under Saddam Hussein, Sunnis often lorded it over Shiites, and the two religious camps are historically at odds.

Addressing those Sunni concerns by offering a new power-sharing formula may not be easy with battle lines so clearly drawn. But has Mr. Allawi done enough? Iraq's interim president, Ghazi al-Yawar, himself a Sunni, warns against using military force to resolve the issue of Fallujah, an action which might trigger a Sunni boycott of the election.

Compounding the problem is a rise in a type of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism that sees the terrorist attacks as justified. And then there's a US concern about not appearing to let terrorists win. The Pentagon argues that many non-Iraqi Arab terrorists are in Fallujah, and wants to retake Fallujah after being forced by Sunni uprisings to abandon a battle for the city last April.

The contest for Fallujah, as well as the US election, have put Bush's radical idea to a critical test.

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