WASHINGTON - As U.S. warplanes hammered suspected insurgent hide-outs in the Iraqi city of Fallujah yesterday for a second straight day, American ground troops remained poised on the outskirts just as they have since a cease-fire was signed five months ago.
But with attacks on U.S. forces continuing to rise around the country, insurgent forces using negotiations to buy time to regroup and key elections scheduled for January, lawmakers, military officers and defense experts are saying that Fallujah and other restive cities must be pacified soon.
Fallujah, a rebel-held city west of Baghdad, where insurgents roam the streets and where the Jordanian-born militant Abu Musad al-Zarqawi is said to be based, is one of a growing number of "no-go" zones where U.S. troops do not patrol and Iraqi government forces have proved to be ineffective.
Other largely Sunni cities where there is stiff rebel resistance and control include Ramadi, west of Fallujah, as well as Samarra and Baqouba, north of Baghdad. And there are combative Shiite areas, including Sadr City, a teeming slum in Baghdad, and the holy city of Najaf, south of the capital, where a tense truce continues.
"The time has come that these pockets have to be dealt with," said retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, a former commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region. "It's going to be a difficult slog through urban areas and avoiding collateral damage." Still, he added, "I don't see any way around it."
Zinni, echoing private comments by some active-duty Army and Marine Corps officers, said negotiated settlements "seem to have failed."
Insurgents in Fallujah have not adhered to the Iraqi government's call to turn in their arms and join the political process, he said. And a truce last month in Najaf with the forces of militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have only allowed his militia to regroup and mount attacks elsewhere, Zinni and others say.
An Army officer who requested anonymity complained that Iraqi insurgents and foreign fighters are taking over larger portions of the country and that Iraqi security forces, such as the Fallujah Brigade, have not been effective in checking the trend.
"We've tried to have Iraqis take care of the problem and they've failed us," the officer said, noting that few cities are in U.S. or Iraqi government hands. "With the exception of Mosul and Basra, we've lost control of a significant portion of the country."
U.S. jets slammed suspected insurgent positions in Fallujah again yesterday as they had the day before, raising plumes of smoke but doing little to dislodge the militants who control this center of Sunni resistance. The airstrikes targeted a militant headquarters that has been coordinating attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces, the U.S. military said.
Hospital officials said two people were killed in the attack but did not say whether they were insurgents. Late Tuesday, U.S. jets dropped several bombs and tank and artillery units fired rounds into Fallujah in retaliation for attacks on Marine positions outside the city, said Lt. Col. T.V. Johnson, a Marine spokesman.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, insurgents detonated a roadside bomb that killed one U.S. soldier and wounded two others, pushing the number of American military deaths in the Iraq campaign to 1,005.
`The hard reality'
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry referred to the insurgent lairs yesterday as he took a swipe at the Bush administration's Iraq policy during a campaign stop in Cincinnati.
President Bush "calls Iraq a catastrophic success," Kerry said. "But a glance at the front pages or a look at the nightly news shows brings home the hard reality: rising instability, spreading violence, growing extremism, havens now created that weren't there for terrorists who weren't even in the country before we went there.
"And today even the Pentagon has admitted this very reality: that entire regions of Iraq are controlled by insurgents and terrorists," Kerry said.
The Massachusetts senator was referring to comments Tuesday by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledging that serious security problems persist in Fallujah and other Sunni-dominated cities around Baghdad.
This week, Army Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, the No. 2 military officer in Iraq, indicated that an assault on Fallujah and perhaps other havens was likely before the elections in January for the new national assembly.
"I don't think today you could hold elections," he told reporters in Baghdad, noting that attacks in August were reaching 100 per day, the highest level since Bush declared major fighting at an end in May 2003. "But I do have about four months where I want to get local control. And then I've got the rest of January to help the Iraqis put the mechanisms in place."
`Strategy for the cities'