For the first time in the Iraq war, according to military officials, US aircraft last week directly bombed a mosque. The airstrike northwest of Ramadi ended an intense firefight in which insurgents, holed up inside the shrine with heavy weapons, held off the US Marines for three hours. Precision-guided munitions set the Sharqi mosque ablaze, but left it standing.
"The Marines couldn't even get close to the building to do anything because of the firepower that was coming out of there," making the mosque a legitimate target, says a senior military official in Baghdad. "The only way to stop this was with a strike."
The incident illustrates how US and Iraqi forces over the past three months have adopted increasingly tough tactics against a dug-in insurgency: raiding mosques, dropping bombs and firing rockets in cities, and conducting large-scale infantry sweeps into urban "no-go zones."
The aggressive military campaign marks a strategic shift based in part on missteps last spring, when political concerns led US troops to pull back from assaults on Fallujah, Najaf, and other cities, and cede ground to insurgents. It is part of a plan to establish security for Iraqi elections scheduled for January.
Buoyed by what American commanders consider largely successful operations to retake hostile territory in Najaf, Tal Afar, and Samarra, US forces are preparing for battle in the most entrenched insurgent cities, including Ramadi, capital of the restive Anbar Province, and the rebel and terrorist stronghold of Fallujah.
"As you look back to April, we began offensive military operations [in Fallujah], then stopped," says Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, deputy director of operations for the US-led coalition. "A security force was established, but proved ineffective ... allowing it to become a safe haven. We learned from this and applied the lesson in Najaf, Samarra, Tal Afar, and will continue to apply it elsewhere.
"If you don't secure all areas, insurgents can flee to conduct operations elsewhere," says General Lessel. "That is why Fallujah has been such a thorn - because it has been used as a safe haven for planning and launching attacks. It has to be denied as a safe haven."
Still, with the hardest battles ahead, it's too early to tell whether the US has a winning strategy. In the short term, heavy US offensives could alienate the Iraqi population with higher civilian casualties and destruction of mosques, schools, and other public places where insurgents take refuge. In the long run, keeping cities pacified will depend on the staying power of fledgling Iraqi security forces and the progress of economic rebuilding, which remain tenuous.
"Both extremes still exist" in the effectiveness of Iraqi forces, says Lessel. "In those units where you have good leadership, there is good performance and high retention; in units with poor leadership, the entire organization can collapse."
Indeed, the pre-election offensive may require more US troops. American commanders agree that more forces are needed to secure the country, but stress that they prefer those troops be Iraqi. Still, senior Pentagon and military officials leave open the possibility of ramping up US forces in Iraq prior to January, most likely by lengthening tours for units already in the country, as fresh forces rotate in.
So far, major military operations have had little impact on curbing the daily carnage in Iraq's Sunni regions. Much of the Shiite south and northern Kurdish areas are relatively stable, with less than two attacks a day in 10 of Iraq's 18 provinces since power was transferred to an interim Iraqi government in June, according to military figures. But violence in Baghdad and cities to the west and north kept the average daily number of attacks at 70 in September - lower than August but higher than July. Moreover, attacks grew increasingly lethal, with more roadside explosions and suicide car bombings.
Nevertheless, US officers involved in recent operations in Najaf in August, Tal Afar in September, and Samarra and Baqubah this month, say they are optimistic so far. In each city except Baqubah, efforts to dislodge insurgents began with a carrot-and-stick approach, in which large-scale US and Iraqi military incursions came only after negotiations failed. While US troops took the lead, Iraqi forces proved far more effective than last spring, the officers say. Iraqi units have repeatedly cleared mosques of fighters and weapons, enabling US forces to avoid encroaching on holy sites.
"[Iraqi forces] handled themselves very professionally, even with sensitive issues like clearing a mosque that had been held by insurgent forces and was also a weapons cache," says a US officer who accompanied Iraqi troops on several raids in the northern city of Tal Afar. "This is the kind of operation that will increase the local people's support," he said via e-mail.
In Samarra, Iraqi military forces cleared a mosque and minaret, gathered intelligence for raids, and took over police duties while a new local police force was being established, says Lt. Col. David Miller, commander of the 25th Infantry Division's 1-14 infantry battalion, which took part in the operation.
"My experience in Najaf in April compared to Samarra today is a tale of two cities," he says. "In Najaf, the diplomatic/military effort seemed a little out of sync.... In Samarra, it seemed that the interim Iraqi government, US State Department, and coalition were absolutely in sync. I suspect this operation will be a case study in how to do it right - including the transition to Iraqi security forces control."
In contrast to last spring, US forces are following up combat operations with a continuing presence and on-the-spot economic compensation for residents.
In Samarra, for example, a US infantry battalion is now setting up a base inside the city to back up local police and prevent insurgents from returning. In the aftermath of fighting, US troops quickly oversaw repairs to homes and infrastructure. "I had $50,000 dollars in my pocket to immediately pay for damages at the local level," says Colonel Miller. "We occupied a school for a couple days, so we paid to fix the courtyard wall we knocked over and about $5,000 in general upgrades to the school. It sounds small, but it's the kind of thing people see."
In Baqubah, a city of major insurgent attacks and record bombings last summer, US commanders say no offensive to recapture the city is needed. In recent days, US and Iraqi forces have conducted operations to preempt any spike in insurgent activity during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but have so far "seen very little enemy activity" says Col. Dana Pittard, who commands the 1st Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade that oversees western Diyala Province.
"The bottom line is that the insurgents do not have a 'grip' on Baqubah," says Colonel Pittard. In fact, he says 5 of the province's 12 most wanted insurgent leaders have turned themselves in within the past six weeks, and over 100 insurgents have applied for amnesty.
Violence in Baqubah has dropped sharply and Iraqi government and security forces are taking charge, he continues. Since June, the number of road bombings has dropped 60 percent, and small-arms attacks have fallen 80 percent. Mortar and rocket attacks in Baqubah - once among the highest on US bases in Iraq - are down by half. "The insurgency has lost steam" in Diyala, Pittard says.
American and Iraqi forces have recently stepped up operations in preparation for likely major offensives in Ramadi and Fallujah, which experts consider the heart of the Iraqi insurgency. "Fallujah may be the center of gravity," says Steven Metz of the Strategic Studies Institute at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
In Ramadi, US Marines backed Iraqi forces in raiding seven mosques suspected of housing insurgents and weapons. In Fallujah, intensifying US airstrikes were coupled last week with a large-scale barrage by ground artillery including 155-millimeter towed howitzers - the biggest attack of its kind for months, US military officials said. Hundreds of Marines set up a "dynamic cordon" around the city in an effort to thwart insurgent attacks during Ramadan.
Such harsh measures are costly, but necessary, military strategists say. "While the government cannot win a counterinsurgency in a purely military realm, potentially it could lose it there," says Mr. Metz.