Under siege

April 15, 2004

THE CEASE-FIRE around Fallujah continued not to hold very well yesterday. The siege there may well be remembered one day as the turning point in President Bush's campaign for Iraq. But which way will it turn? Either the resistance will be subdued, impressively, and a relieved population will finally be able to go about building a peaceful life there - or it will be the place where Iraqis remember they decided to take a stand against a frustrated and indiscriminate American occupation.

A complete picture is impossible to come by, but the news coming out of Fallujah is not encouraging. It was the site, of course, of the horrifying murder and dismemberment late last month of four U.S. security guards, and that led to a decision by the Marines to impose order on the city and bring the perpetrators to justice. What ensued was house-to-house, block-to-block fighting, accompanied by a significant amount of destruction and, by most accounts, several hundred Iraqi civilians killed.

Even members of the Iraqi Governing Council have protested the American tactics. A cease-fire in place since the weekend was extended another 48 hours yesterday morning - to allow two hospitals in Fallujah to reopen, so as to provide care for those wounded by American arms.

But even with the cease-fire, at least five more Iraqis - some or all of them undoubtedly enemy fighters - were killed in the city yesterday.

U.S. forces could not, of course, simply allow Fallujah to fester forever as an unmolested seat of resistance. A majority of the city's population may very well be longing for the security that U.S. troops can provide. But the use of tanks, helicopters, jet fighters and artillery essentially to avenge four murders has faint but disheartening echoes of the Russian approach to Grozny. Moscow ensured for itself the hatred of Chechnya by the violence it wielded there, even as it was winning (after a fashion) the war; Washington should be leery of making the same mistake.

Tuesday evening, President Bush said three times that "we will stay the course." Yet he offered no insight into how that course will get us from here to there. The handover of sovereignty in 11 weeks, to take one example: It will happen, but who will actually take the reins? We'll just have to see what the United Nations comes up with, Mr. Bush said.

He dismissed, as if almost incomprehensible, the notion that his administration might have made mistakes in Iraq. Freedom is a gift of the Almighty, he said, and America is the instrument by which it will be spread.

Well, the Pentagon's terrible swift sword is poised to loose more fateful lightning at Fallujah, and also at Najaf. Wise heads may prevail, and in the end there may be no more children left legless or armless in those unlucky cities. But even in that case, it may be too late. The legend of Fallujah has already started to grow, fanned by rumors and propagandists as well as photographs and eyewitness accounts - and it's not a legend that will kindly treat a president who stayed the course because he couldn't think of anything better to do.

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