The battle for Fallujah will go down in history as a textbook example of urban warfare. The US military used the most advanced technology and the best street-fighting tactics to hunt down the entrenched insurgents while keeping civilian casualties to a minimum.
But the message of Fallujah isn't the prowess of the United States but its tenacity.
Having failed last April to retake that small Sunni city, the US could not again afford to appear weak to the would-be voters of Iraq. With elections planned for late January, Iraqis had to be shown that the US military, along with the fledgling Iraqi Army, will keep eliminating safe sanctuaries for hostage-taking terrorists and bombmaking insurgents.
At the height of the battle, President Bush predicted more insurgent violence ahead. Indeed, even though more than a thousand of them were killed in the battle, many insurgents - including top leaders like Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - had already fled. But as long as the US and its allies keep them on the run, and more important, separate them from civilian supporters, the US has a chance to convince Iraqis that such battles will be won and that it's worth standing up against the insurgents and for democracy.
The Iraqis who really need convincing are the Sunnis, or about one fifth of the Iraqi population. The US victory in Fallujah so far has not led to widespread Sunni uprisings as happened during the last assault on the city. Last April, Iraqis knew the US was mainly trying to retaliate for the brutal killing of four US security workers. Civilian casualties were much higher in that battle. This time, the battle was for Iraqis' future, and civilians were given ample time to leave the city.
In addition, Iraq now has a more legitimate interim government, one working with Arab countries and the United Nations. Desertions within the new Iraqi Army are also fewer, though infiltration by insurgents remains a problem.
The Bush administration has had to learn quickly from its early mistakes in Iraq. Building a democracy from scratch has been literally hit and miss. The administration can show it's continuing to learn by now providing long-term order to Fallujah with loyal Iraqi troops, quickly providing basic services, and extending the political rule of Prime Minister Allawi to the city.
Some Sunni Muslim preachers will continue to call on people to take up arms and to boycott the election. They fear the Shiite majority will dominate a nationally elected government. If it can pacify Sunni cities that harbor insurgents before the election, the US will reduce the desire among some Sunnis to revive the Saddam era, when Sunnis ruled. Instead, Sunnis may begin to see their only future lies in competing at the ballot box.
If that happens, the insurgents would be fighting their own people, and would surely lose. Then the US military will have really won.