As US Marines battle insurgents in a string of towns in Iraq's western Anbar Province, they are applying lessons learned from their experience in Fallujah: Flush out insurgents, then stay there.
Some of those farming towns, along the Euphrates River, have been cleared and cleared again up to three times during the past year, as militants reestablish their grip when US and Iraqi forces depart.
Now marines are setting up temporary camp in these remote outposts - just as they did here in Fallujah a year ago, when marines cleared the city of Al Qaeda and nationalist insurgents, who had turned the city into a haven for kidnapping gangs and a launching pad for suicide attacks on Baghdad.
The key lesson from the Fallujah battle? "Go and stay," says Col. Dave Berger, commander of Regimental Combat Team 8. "The worst thing you can do is go and then leave. If you go, get something done and leave, each time you leave you lose [the Iraqis'] trust"
It was Fallujah where the US military decided to set a precedent in Iraq, hoping that a full-scale offensive - which heavily damaged the city - followed by a carefully controlled return of the 300,000 residents, would undermine the insurgency.
During that offensive last November, some US forces controversially used white phosphorus incendiary rounds against insurgent strongholds. But US officials deny reports that they targeted civilians.
Berger calls Fallujah today a test-case "biosphere." Since the offensive the city has been ringed with a half-dozen checkpoints, open only to residents with special identity cards. Americans have controlled variables here, like nowhere else in Iraq.
But the line is fine between having a security presence and helping rebuild a sustainable economy and infrastructure, as marines are attempting here. And while Fallujah may be reporting some success, it has also received the most US attention and forces; a fact that can't be duplicated in every trouble spot.
"It's going to be hard to convince [Iraqis] we're going to stay this time" in other towns, says Colonel Berger, a Farnham, Va., native who spent last year atthe Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, and still keeps in touch with security experts there.
Another senior Marine officer, speaking off the record, estimated it would take twice as many marines on the ground to copy the Fallujah model everywhere. Currently there are 22,000 US Marines in western Iraq. And such a boost in manpower might not be advisable, considering the different circumstances of each town.
"We are always going to be viewed by many Iraqis as an occupation force, and we can't change that perception," says Berger. "The best we can do is ... make our signature lower and lower."
The price of a steady presence has been high. One marine and 15 Iraqi civilians were killed Saturday by a roadside bomb in Haditha, the 2nd Marine Division said Monday. It noted that eight insurgents were also killed, and that in October marines had launched assaults there and in Barwana and Haqlaniyah "to establish bases to maintain a long-term security presence."
Likewise, marine units that began a new US-Iraqi offensive, Operation Steel Curtain, on Nov. 5 quickly set up temporary bases in Husayba, Karabila,and Obeidi as they took towns from militants.
The Pentagon is planning to issue a directive that will codify that strategy, by turning "what it calls 'stability operations' into a core military mission comparable to full-scale combat," The New York Times reported Sunday.
There have been no announced plans to increase the overall number of US forces in Iraq. But the Fallujah strategy of "go and stay" is a mind-set that is already filtering down to combat units that are trained to kill an enemy. Marines interviewed say that progress on civil affairs is an equally important metric of success in places like Fallujah - and that winning the peace often proves more difficult than winning the war.
"Once you take a city, you've got to go through it slowly and clear it," says Capt. William Grube, commander of Fox Company, of the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, whose unit lives in and helps patrol the city. He says previous operations in Anbar Province, where US and Iraqi forces attacked and then withdrew, were simply "playing whack-a-mole."
"At some point, you need to take it, and sit there, and hold it for real," says Captain Grube, from Emmaus, Pa. In Fallujah, "the longer we have the place stable, the more chance there is to undermine support for insurgents."
"When you look at the near term, of course it is going to be negative," says Grube, about Fallujan views of how badly damaged their city was by the offensive. So he takes the long view - one that many Iraqis remain uncertain about.
"I don't think they will wake up one day and say, 'I'm all for transparency and the rights of man,'" says Grube. "We have to show by example that you can be powerful, but not a brutal conqueror."
That label is often applied to US forces in Fallujah by residents of this Sunni city that once gave bedrock support to Saddam Hussein. "Fallujah, from day one [of the US attack] to now, is like a big prison - you have a time limit to get out, and to get in, and a [curfew] time you must sleep," says Sheikh Ahmed Sarhan Abd, deputy head of the Fallujah Sheikhs Council. "This emergency situation was supposed to last three or four months, not one year."
"We have not really seen happiness during the Eid [religious celebration]," says Sheikh Ahmed, who blames Iraqi police and army, as well as US forces. "If we want to go to the mosque, Iraqi forces stand at the doorway with guns. Yes, there are insurgents, but you can't put students and our sons in the same basket."