No city has earned the rallying cry of Iraq's insurgents more than Fallujah - the inhospitable sprawl west of Baghdad that has become the nerve center for the anti-American guerrilla war.
For US forces, too, Fallujah is becoming a rallying cry: A city where Iraq's nationwide insurgency must be dealt a deathblow to convince other insurgent-held cities to capitulate before January elections.
US commanders and Iraq's interim government agree that Fallujah must be wrested from the militants who have largely controlled it since last April. But even as US Marines prepare to reoccupy the city, analysts are asking if the spreading footprint and increasing sophistication of guerrilla cells across Iraq mean that any victory there may be shortlived - and fail to end wider militant violence.
"One thought going around now is: 'Why doesn't Iraq look like [post-World War II] Germany or Japan, which knew they had been defeated?' " says John Pike, a military analyst who heads Globalsecurity.org in Alexandria, Va. "One of the challenges we are facing now is these people don't know they have been defeated," he says. "Fallujah will be an opportunity for them to be crushed decisively and for them to taste defeat."
Few doubt that marines are capable of retaking Fallujah, especially after two months of nightly air strikes, which US officials say have cut into guerrilla ranks and the network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the militant leader who in the past week changed his group's name to Al Qaeda in Iraq.
But when the city first became the focus of a US standoff with insurgents last April, an initial attempt by marines to retake the town of 300,000 - which was called off by Washington when only one-third of the city was under control - sparked violence across Iraq as well as global protest. Some 100 Americans and more than 600 Iraqis died in the battles.
The fight this time is expected to be just as bloody, experts say. And the spread of the insurgency - with its greater destructive expertise, numerous cells, and as many as 20,000 recruits across Iraq - means that a Fallujah triumph alone may not end the insurgency.
"The logic is: You flatten Fallujah, hold up the head of Fallujah, and say 'Do our bidding, or you're next,' " says Toby Dodge, an Iraq analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. "The reason for such [threats] is because there are not enough troops, which creates a security vacuum, which fuels the insurgency."
The US strategy is to hand over Fallujah and other trouble spots to newly trained Iraqi forces once they are under US control, as was done in Samarra earlier this month.
Such plans coincide with reports of a Pentagon effort to boost US troop numbers from the current 138,000 in Iraq before the critical January vote. Some troops would stay in Iraq longer; other units would arrive earlier than planned.
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has threatened to invade Fallujah if city elders and sheikhs don't hand over Mr. Zarqawi and foreign militants. Mr. Allawi told his cabinet on Tuesday to "expect an escalation in terrorist acts," and that "more extremists have entered Fallujah [to keep] the situation volatile."
A group calling itself the Factions of the Islamic Resistance Movement in Iraq sent a videotaped warning Tuesday to Associated Press television. If US forces invade Fallujah, a masked gunman said, "all military and civilian targets of the occupation" will be targeted, including Iraqi military and government employees who don't quit.
"We will attack them with weapons and military tactics they have not experienced before and in the ways and forms of our choosing," said the gunman, wearing a Saddam-era military uniform and flanked by seven men.
Already, the insurgents have extended the reach of their terror - with kidnappings, car bombs, and attacks on Iraqi police and security forces.
"This is very powerful use of the media, and gives the impression that Iraq is sliding out of control," says Jeremy Binnie, Middle East editor of Jane's Sentinel in London. "The hostage-taking just compounds the blowing up of visible targets. We certainly felt the Ken Bigley saga over here," he adds, referring to the British hostage executed after he was shown for three weeks on video begging for his life.
The disappearance of some 380 tons - the amount is in dispute - of powerfully explosive HMX, RDX and PETN doesn't change the dynamic, as insurgents have shown ingenuity using more conventional materials. But if insurgents have the high explosives, "it does make their job easier," says Binnie. "This way you can pack more punch into a car bomb."
The aim of the Fallujah operation will be to stop such attacks, and extreme options may be on the table. Dodge compares one to the approach taken by the late Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad in the city of Hama in 1982. Not unlike Fallujah today, Mr. Assad then faced "religious extremists, dug into an urban city, that were willing to fight," says Dodge.
Syria's example - which left an estimated 10,000 dead, and large parts of central Hama shelled and bulldozed - has been seen as defining moment of brutality in the battle to eliminate Islamists in the Middle East. But it worked. More than two decades later, such extremists have never again shown themselves in Syria's barren political landscape.
"If [the Americans] want to beat Fallujah, that's the price they're going to have to pay, and I'm not sure they're going to do that," says Dodge. And not all cases have met with similar results. The Israeli military, which has used tough tactics against Palestinian militants for years - including aerial bombardment of urban centers and targeted assassinations of militant leaders - has had only limited success.
Another problem in Iraq, where jobs are scarce and pressure to fight can be strong in disenfranchised Sunni areas north and west of Baghdad, is the growing reach of insurgents. There are believed to be from 20 to 50 separate cells at work, all loyal to ousting American forces and Iraqi allies but only loosely connected.
"That's a huge problem to combat. You can chase and kill one group, but you can't roll it up," adds Dodge. "You can see a technical innovation used in one part of the country spread very quickly. Someone, somewhere, has worked out a very quick way of spreading this stuff. There is geographic and cross-ethnic collusion."
"My gut hunch is that, as soon as [polls close], everything will break loose over there," says Mr. Pike at Globalsecurity.org. "[US forces] will have every sniper in the country go into Fallujah."