As US forces gear up for a showdown in the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, the weekend arrest of a suspected lieutenant of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi points to improving US intelligence in Iraq.
The outcome in Fallujah will be critical to attempts by the US and Iraq's interim government to shape Iraq's future, before and after January elections, analysts say.
Recent efforts to pacify the city of Samarra suggest that Iraqi military participation is crucial to legitimize any offensive and maintain stability afterward. Aware of this key role, insurgents took bloody aim at Iraq's fledgling armed forces this weekend.
Sunday, about 50 newly trained Iraqi Army recruits were shot to death at close range, after three minibuses were ambushed northeast of Baghdad by attackers with apparent insider knowledge. Two suicide car bombings killed another 20 members of the Iraqi National Guard on Saturday. In addition, a US diplomat died in a mortar strike on Camp Victory, near Baghdad airport.
Fallujah has become the potent symbol of resistance in Iraq, where the mix of Mr. Zarqawi's Al Qaeda-affiliated foreign fighters and nationalist Iraqis have been targeted during two months of nightly US air strikes.
US forces said the arrested Zarqawi aide was a "relatively minor member" of the network who "had moved up to take a critical position as a Zarqawi senior leader" because of the attrition of other militants in the airstrikes.
"This is the first time there is evidence that intelligence gathering [in Fallujah] is really improving," says Mustafa Alani, a security and terrorism expert at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. "The reason is that human intelligence is much improved. There is some cooperation, so Iraqis are now part of the process."
Taking on Fallujah, where negotiations are stalled over Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's demands that city leaders hand over Zarqawi or risk an American invasion, may help curb the violence. Attacks have increased by up to 30 percent nationwide since the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan last week.
Some argue that a positive momentum has been created by a recent peace deal with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr - whose fighters withdrew from Najaf after bloody battles with US troops in August, and have just been paid $5 million in an 11-day weapons buy-back scheme in Baghdad's Sadr City slum.
Reestablishing US and Iraqi control of Samarra following a three-day battle earlier this month has added to that momentum, and may be a template to build upon, experts say.
"The interim government has had a pretty good couple of months," says Gary Samore, an Iraq specialist at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. "The battle of Fallujah will be absolutely critical, because if they are able to restore control, that may very well send a strong message to other renegade towns, which would then be more likely to participate in January elections."
Sunni Muslim clerics vowed over the weekend to boycott the poll if Fallujah is invaded. But while the majority of Fallujah's 300,000 residents have fled the city, it may be increasingly inhospitable for militants.
"The major difference is [insurgents] are not enjoying the same support and sympathy as in April," says Mr. Alani. "There is a major shift in people's perception after they see Samarra stable. People are sick and tired [of fighting]."
"This [offensive] should not be left for long, or this positive image of the Sadr peace and Samarra will be lost," says Alani. "The time factor is important."
Untested Iraqi forces disintegrated during joint US attempts to move on Fallujah last April, after the killing and mutilation of four American contractors. While by all accounts they performed better in Samarra, all agree that controlling Fallujah is a far more complicated and dangerous task.
"Samarra had been claimed a success story long before the [US-Iraqi] attack," says Dan Plesch, a defense analyst at the University of London. "They did Samarra because they could do Samarra, and not because it was a big problem."
Any concerted attack against Fallujah before the US presidential election on Nov. 2, he says, is likely to be an electoral ploy, because "you can't turn a president down when a war is on," says Mr. Plesch. "I think that they can declare victory that will last several news cycles, until something else goes wrong."
The "success" of the Najaf and Samarra examples is also under strain, as promised infusions of aid have been sporadic at best, says Anthony Cordesman, a veteran defense and Iraq analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"For years in Vietnam, we would go in, 'pacify' areas by force, and then move away leaving a vacuum behind that the Vietnamese government could and would not fill," Mr. Cordesman writes in a recent analysis. "The calendar [in Iraq] is much tighter, and there is no slack for delays in effective aid and governance as a follow up to the 'liberation' of no-go towns and areas."
There are also questions about sustainable efforts to win over an increasingly demoralized Iraqi population. Recent polling from the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI) found that 85 percent of Iraqis plan to vote, and that 65 percent believe they'll be better off in a year. However, the latter figure has remained steady in previous polls, making it a poor indicator of reaction to recent events.
Other questions showed a sharply negative slide. Last summer, 51 percent of Iraqis thought their country was headed in the right direction; today the number has dropped to 42 percent. Iraqis who believe that security is getting worse has shot up from 31 percent last July, to 45 percent today.
Reining in Fallujah is key to Allawi's strategy for stamping his authority on Iraq. But questions remain about how ready Iraqi forces, under steady attack as collaborators with the US occupation, will be to fight and then maintain order after the battle. The IISS estimates it will be five years before Iraqi forces can assume the entire security burden.
"From Allawi's standpoint, using American forces to impose order is a double-edged sword," says Samore at IISS. "The more he relies on the US to impose order, the more he appears to be nothing more than a puppet of the Americans."
• Staff writers Faye Bowers and Dan Murphy contributed from Washington and Cairo.