CAIRO — As US Marines mass outside the tough Sunni Triangle town of Fallujah, analysts believe the imminent high-profile attack in Iraq carries high political risks.
The US says a principal motivation behind retaking Fallujah, considered the center of the insurgency, is to make Iraq safe enough for elections, scheduled for the end of January.
Rooting out the foreign insurgents the US believes are using the city as a base to wreak havoc throughout the country is crucial to stabilizing Iraq, US officials say. This, coupled with sending a stern message to militants that they will be dealt with unmercifully, could be a turning point on the road to winning the peace in Iraq.
But these broad goals may prove difficult to achieve, say many observers skeptical that the attack on Fallujah can achieve the type of results that US and Iraqi officials are hoping for.
Analysts say that rebels have already fanned out well beyond Fallujah to towns like Ramadi and Samarra, fueling a new wave of violence in areas the US thought it had previously pacified.
To this way of thinking there is no decisive battle to be won in Fallujah, and if the assault devastates that city - in the way the Vietnamese city of Hue was by Marines in 1968 - it could end up damaging the long-term interests of the US and Prime Minister Allawi. Elections could be more threatened by violence, not less so, and rebels will simply establish themselves in more broadly dispersed, harder to strike, locales.
"The Sunnis see themselves [as] the natural rulers of Iraq and they're not going to give it up without a fight,'' says Patrick Lang, a retired US army colonel and former head of Middle East intelligence for the Defense Intelligence Agency. He says he worries the US, by painting the coming battle as "a cataclysmic clash between good and evil" will end up leveling the town and not leave the room for political compromise that long-term peace requires.
"This is a civil war and it's essentially a political process that's going on there,'' says Mr. Lang.
"Allawi understands that he needs to bring these people ... back into a secular Iraqi nationalism. He'd like to see sufficient force used to get cooperation. But we don't want to go too far. We don't want to create a legend in the Middle East that we're a new Hulagu Khan,'' he says, referring to the 13th-century Mongol ruler whose sacking of Baghdad and murder of hundreds of thousands there is still talked about by Arabs.
Even in regard to Iraq's short-term stability, there are doubts over what the offensive can achieve.
Sunday, the Iraqi government braced for more violence by declaring a 60-day state of emergency for all of the country except the relatively peaceful Kurdish areas in the north. The emergency will see curfews imposed and other liberties curtailed.
"We have nothing [against] the people of Fallujah,'' said Prime Minister Allawi. "They have been taken hostage by a bunch of terrorists and bandits and insurgents who were part of the old regime.... I hope the terrorists get it because we are not going to be easy on them. We are going to bring them to justice and we are going to ensure the safety of the people in Iraq."
With many fighters having fled to other cities, Fallujah is not as rich a prize as it once was, say analysts.
While Fallujah was seen months ago as an insurgent hotbed from which many of Iraq's devastating suicide bombings were planned, there is now evidence of more decentralized planning and execution. And areas once won by US and Iraqi forces have shown signs of slipping back out of control.
That was brought home Saturday in Samarra, were more than 30 people were killed in four separate car-bombings and light arms attacks against Iraqi soldiers and police. US soldiers and Iraqi forces retook the city in early October, in an effort some saw as a dress rehearsal for Fallujah, but many local insurgents simply went underground.
Also over the weekend, 20 US soldiers were wounded by a car bomb in the nearby city of Ramadi, 12 Iraqi guardsmen were abducted and executed near the Shiite city of Najaf, a bombing in Baghdad killed a US soldier, and insurgents attacked police in the center of the capital. The Samarra and Ramadi attacks were claimed in an Internet statement by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose network US officials say is based in Fallujah. The authenticity of that claim could not be verified.
To be sure, many US and Iraqi officials see Fallujah as a crucial piece in Iraq's security puzzle. "I can't claim that entering Fallujah will end the terrorist attacks in Iraq,'' Qassem Dawoud, Prime Minister Allawi's national security adviser, said on Al-Arabiya. "But I can say that we will deal with a very big pocket of terrorism [and] we will uproot it. This pocket forms the backbone and the center for terrorists."
In his comments Sunday, Allawi said the emergency law and retaking Fallujah should keep Iraq's elections on track. But not all are convinced. In a letter to President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Allawi on Friday, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan indicated he was worried the Fallujah offensive could drive Iraq's Sunni's further away from the political process.
While Iraq's Kurds and majority Shiites were treated as second-class citizens under Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraq's Sunnis controlled the government, as they have done for most of Iraq's history. That has left many Iraqi Sunnis thinking they have more to lose than to gain from political change.
"Most of what we're fighting now are Sunni arabs who fear being dispossessed of their power,'' says Lang. "The reason they're doing things like imposing sharia law in places like Fallujah is because, with civil society having broken down, this is the symbol of their common identity."
"They're quite willing to fight and die for it," he says.