As US troops fight a multifront war in Iraq - battling radical Shiite militia, insurgents in Sunni strongholds, and terrorist cells while continuing rebuilding efforts - the American military task is arguably more complex and risky than at any time since the fall of Baghdad.
With the recent spike in violence, US military operations in Iraq have reached a critical juncture, requiring a more robust, aggressive posture rather than the gradual withdrawal the Pentagon originally planned for. The shift also reflects the weakness of Iraqi police and civil defense forces, which have repeatedly given ground in the face of armed attacks in recent days.
Yet a tougher US military response, while dictated by the gruesome killings in Fallujah and uprisings in Shiite cities, also carries a Catch-22. A crackdown on core opponents, if mishandled, could inflame Iraqi opinion against the occupation. Ultimately, only a political solution is likely to end the violence. "You can't win it militarily, but you could lose it," said retired Gen. Wesley Clark on CNN. "There is no magic military strategy to keep people off the streets. You have to take the steam out of it by dealing with it politically."
Anticipating possible heightened unrest, US Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid has asked his staff for options in moving fresh troops to Iraq's trouble spots. Already, US forces in Iraq have recently surged from 120,000 to 134,000 as the result of a massive troop rotation. While such reinforcements would first come from within Iraq, contingency plans are under way to dispatch new troops from outside the country if needed.
"Clearly if this thing got out of control over there, we would have to start looking at the number of forces that we have in theater and whether they were adequate to meet our needs," says a senior Central Command official. Currently, he says, "we have the forces necessary to do the job."
In the near term, US commanders say their challenge is not more troops, but how to muster lethal force against enemy groups with precision, preventing civilian casualties. In a delicate balancing act, for example, US troops seeking to root out the armed militants of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr must wield force as surgically as possible to prevent inflaming the Shiite community. In Fallujah, US Marines face a similar dilemma. In recent days, they have imposed a curfew and set up checkpoints to help control passage in and out of the city. Meanwhile, US Marines have killed and captured suspects in "methodical" raids, says Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Yet such precision in Iraq's densely populated urban areas - and especially in Baghdad's impoverished district of Sadr City, the radical cleric's support base - means sending US ground troops into some of the worst combat terrain and will probably result in more US casualties.
"It's inevitable we'll see more US casualties" as the Americans move against Sadr and his supporters, says William Rosenau, an insurgency expert at the RAND Corp.
"If you fire missiles into an overcrowded slum, you will kill a lot of innocent people," says another military analyst. "[So] you've got to do this on foot, in your Bradleys, and you might take more casualties but that way you can carry out a more surgical mission ... that makes more military sense."
Over the weekend, seven US soldiers died as the 1st Armored Division moved to retake police stations in Sadr City captured by Sadr's militia. "That is a difficult thing to do, to go in and retake something when there are guys with guns behind walls or shooting out from windows and rooftops," says the Centcom official.
But as clashes continued Tuesday in Nasiriyah and other Shiite cities between coalition forces and Sadr's 3,000-strong "Mahdi Army," US officials say they have no choice but to apprehend the cleric and disband his "outlaw" forces. "Individuals who create violence, who incite violence, who execute violence against persons inside of Iraq will be hunted down and captured or killed. It is that simple," says Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director for Coalition Operations.
Ideally, US commanders would like Iraqi police and civil defense forces to take the lead against Sadr's group. But those forces, which coalition officials admit lack adequate training and equipment, have crumbled and abandoned their positions in face of the militia attacks in recent days.
As a result, US troops must now police more aggressively rather than assume the role of an emergency, "quick reaction force" stationed on the edges of urban areas as planned. Military officials cast the young firebrand Sadr and his estimated 10,000 supporters as a fringe group engaged in a violent power grab. He lacks the backing of more moderate, respected Shiite figures. "A lot of Shiites don't want that kind of controversial person to be leading their community," says Andrew Terrill, an expert on US-Shiite relations at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
Still, US commanders are sensitive to actions - such as storming a mosque to arrest Sadr - that could incite an uprising by Iraq's wider Shiite community, which represents 60 percent of the population. "If there is a Shiite rebellion on top of a Sunni rebellion, at a certain point the US has to think about leaving Iraq," says Mr. Terrill. Even without a rebellion, he views the moderate Shiites' alliance with the US as sheerly opportunistic, and so advocates a withdrawal of US forces as soon as a stable Iraqi government is in place.