In Fallujah, `no good options' to fight insurgency

Tactics, both friendly and strict, have failed

April 04, 2004|By Alissa J. Rubin | Alissa J. Rubin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Not for the first time, the U.S. military has sworn to "pacify" Fallujah. But none of the options facing commanders in the defiant Sunni Triangle city appears to hold more promise than the gamut of tactics that have been attempted, without success, for nearly a year.

Since last April, U.S. commanders in western Iraq have tried everything from withdrawing troops from the city at the behest of city leaders to house-to-house searches.

The former strategy gave the insurgents free rein to use the city as a base for disrupting other areas of the country. The latter tactic often resulted in civilian casualties, spawning a dynamic of revenge - common in tribal societies such as Fallujah's - that in turn swelled the ranks of potential insurgents.

This week, the U.S. military is promising to avenge the deaths of four U.S. civilian contractors who were mutilated in the city last week. Military officials say no options have been ruled out: airpower, overwhelming ground forces, house searches and mass arrests. Such an all-out approach might bring temporary calm to this city of 500,000 but almost certainly would entail more Iraqi civilian casualties and spawn anger and likely retaliation throughout the Sunni Muslim regions of Iraq that have been the strongholds of the resistance.

"There really are no good options for the military in this situation," said Michael Clarke, professor of Defense Studies at Kings College London. Robin Bhatty, a senior analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based International Crisis Group who is focusing on security issues in Iraq, sees a similar conundrum. "The U.S. can't leave, because Iraqi security forces are simply not ready for the job, but they also can't blow the whole place to pieces," he said.

Several experts contend that, from the beginning, the United States failed to understand the complex social and political factors at work in the towns along the Euphrates River.

Some believe that the United States should have negotiated with tribal leaders and the clerics when U.S. forces first arrived and given them the authority to control the city.

"Fallujah people are from old Arabian desert tribes. ... The people will respect what the chieftains say," said Mohammed Askeri, a former brigadier-general in the Iraqi army who specialized in strategy. "By dividing up responsibility for the city and the surrounding area among the tribal chiefs, the U.S. would put responsibility for security in the hands of the people of that area."

But others note that it would have been problematic for the United States to hand over authority to some of the very people whom U.S. soldiers were trying to arrest for crimes under Saddam Hussein's regime.

But even if sharing authority with some of the players in Fallujah and the surrounding towns would have been difficult, some observers contend that perceived slights to authority figures have damaged the U.S. military's efforts in the region.

The Marines who surround Fallujah are the fourth set of U.S. forces to occupy the area in the past year. They recently vowed to try a model more similar to that used by the British troops in the southern city of Basra: foot patrols and intensive interaction with residents to create trust. But last week's fatal firefight between Marines and residents, followed by the attack on U.S. civilians, greatly complicates the near-term prospects for such efforts.

Even with increased manpower and an effort to reach out to the population, the level of hostility that has built up between the Sunni Triangle population and the coalition occupiers will be difficult to overcome.

After months of house-to-house searches for insurgents, many of which have come up empty-handed, there is considerable accumulated resentment and a poisonous atmosphere in which revenge is the town watchword.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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