WASHINGTON - Facing one of the grimmest choices of the Iraq war, President Bush and his senior national security and military advisers are expected to decide this weekend whether to order an invasion of Fallujah, even if a battle there runs the risk of uprisings in the city and perhaps elsewhere around Iraq.
After declaring Friday evening in Florida that "America will never be run out of Iraq by a bunch of thugs and killers," Bush flew to Camp David for the weekend, where administration officials said he planned consultations in a videoconference with the military commanders who are keeping the city under siege.
But in interviews, administration and senior military officials portrayed Bush's choices as dismal.
"It's clear you can't leave a few thousand insurgents there to terrorize the city and shoot at us," one senior official involved in the discussions said yesterday. "The question now is whether there is a way to go in with the most minimal casualties possible."
No decision to begin military action has been made.
The chief of the U.S. occupation authority, L. Paul Bremer III, visited Fallujah yesterday with Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the senior commander in Iraq, to consult with front-line commanders. They appeared to be making a last-ditch effort for a negotiated settlement, officials said.
But in Washington, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has expressed strong doubts that the Fallujah political and business figures the Americans are talking with hold any sway over the insurgents.
On a day of widespread violence, at least 14 Iraqis were killed yesterday in Baghdad when mortar bombs and rockets were fired into a crowded market. A roadside bomb killed 14 Iraqis. At least seven U.S. soldiers were killed in two separate attacks by insurgents.
Yesterday, as a blinding sandstorm swept across a sprawling former Iraqi army base near Fallujah, Marine commanders were getting assignments for potential targets, studying maps and planning lines of attack for a battle that they expect could come in the next few days. The Marines have encircled the city, awaiting Bush's decision.
But the city, a sandy mix of wide boulevards and back alleys along the Euphrates River west of Baghdad, poses what military officials say is an immensely complicated and dangerous urban combat terrain.
While administration officials say they would like to carry out a precise attack on an estimated 2,000 hard-core Sunni Muslim insurgents, military officials say there is no way guided missiles or pinpoint bombing can do this job. Instead, the military is planning swift raids by Marine riflemen - backed by helicopters and gunships - aimed at the insurgents' leaders and their gunmen, while encouraging others in the city to evacuate or stay under cover.
For Bush, struggling through the most casualty-ridden month in Iraq since the war began 13 months ago, the kind of operation now being contemplated is hardly the sort of painful choice his administration anticipated nearly a year after he declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq and the defeat of Saddam Hussein's government.
The president and his advisers, officials familiar with the deliberations said, are keenly aware that if the operation to rout out the insurgents kills many civilians - or simply appears to when reports are broadcast on Arab networks - it could spark uprisings elsewhere around Iraq, including Baghdad and even some Shiite strongholds where tolerance of the U.S. occupation has worn thin.
In Washington, officials still describe the fear of uprisings in Iraq as a theory, one they say may be overblown. But it clearly has Bush and his advisers deeply concerned. They have only 10 weeks to form an interim government, and it will be May, officials say, before the U.N. envoy charged to put together such a government, Lakhdar Brahimi, will return to Iraq to try to fill its posts.
Brahimi's efforts, officials concede, could be made far more difficult if the Fallujah confrontation goes badly.
It was this growing concern, officials say, that led Bremer, who is to leave Iraq in 10 weeks after handing sovereignty over to Iraqis, to warn on Friday that "Iraq faces a choice." His message was that the country was in danger of losing its best chance to establish a democratic government.
"If you do not defend your beloved country, it will not be saved," he said, using a starkly grimmer tone than his usual upbeat messages about how life is coming back to normal in Iraq.
On the outskirts of Fallujah yesterday, hundreds of people were still trying to get back to their homes despite the apparent threat of imminent attack, but soldiers and Marines at the checkpoints turned them back and allowed no one in.
Hundreds of other people were fleeing the city. The rule was that only families were being allowed out. At several points, young military-age men were seen grabbing protesting children by the hand to make their way out past the checkpoints.