BAGHDAD — Not for the first time, the U.S. military has sworn to "pacify" Fallouja. But none of the options facing commanders in the defiant Sunni Triangle city appear 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 local leaders to house-to-house searches and group arrests.
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 Fallouja's — that in turn swelled the ranks of potential insurgents.
The U.S. military has promised to avenge the deaths of four U.S. civilian contractors whose remains 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 300,000 but would almost certainly 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 insurgency.
"There really are no good options for the military in this situation," said Michael Clarke, professor of defense studies at King's College in London.
Robin Bhatty, a senior analyst with the Washington-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, noting that Iraqi civilian casualties inflicted by the U.S. military last April set off the round of reprisals that is still playing out.
A hard look at the intractable situation in Fallouja — and, to a lesser degree, elsewhere in the Sunni Triangle — points up the difficulties facing the U.S. troops there, according to British, American and Iraqi observers.
Several experts contend that, from the beginning, the U.S. failed to understand the complex social and political factors at work in the towns along the Euphrates River. The local power structure is the product of alliances between fiercely insular tribal clans, a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement and former Baath Party businessmen and intelligence officers, who have helped bankroll the insurgency and plot some of its more sophisticated attacks.
Only a handful of people are active insurgents, but because of widespread antagonism toward all Westerners and the inability of the U.S.-led coalition to crush the insurgency, the local population is always hedging its bets, careful not to alienate the forces that could soon be in charge again.
The military used tactics such as house searches and middle-of-the-night arrests that humiliated the conservative Sunni population. The military also often undermined the power of local authority figures who, experts say, were the only hope for gaining control of the region.
If the U.S. had negotiated with tribal leaders and the clerics when American forces first arrived and given them the authority to control the city and the responsibility for ensuring that no harm came to U.S. troops, the situation could have been kept under control, Iraqi and Western experts say.
"Fallouja 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."
'Series of Bargains'
Others point out that it would have been problematic for the U.S. 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.
"The U.S. doesn't control Iraq — what they've done is to strike a series of bargains with local actors in the society. One of the problems with the Sunni Triangle is that those deals can't be struck because the very people that could strike them are the people the occupation is trying to get rid of," said Toby Dodge, an expert on Iraq at the University of Warwick in Britain.
But even if the military was unable or unwilling to make deals with some local leaders, some observers say, soldiers should have taken care to not damage U.S. efforts in the region by slighting some authority figures.
"When a sheik, the most respected man in his tribe, comes to the U.S. base to ask for the release of one of his tribesmen whom he says has been wrongly imprisoned and offers to take responsibility for the person, and the troops ignore him or deny they arrested such a person, it is a humiliation for him," Askeri said.
The U.S. military's problem was compounded by its inability to call on anybody from the Iraqi army to quickly help restore order because it had dismantled the army along with other branches of the security forces and intelligence.
The Iraqis whom the U.S. anointed to oversee the region failed, for the most part, to exert control, the observers said.
That left the insurgents room to dominate the field the moment the U.S. troops withdrew. When the 82nd Airborne, which controlled the area during the fall and winter, diminished its presence in the city, an insufficiently trained and armed Iraqi police force took over as the security force.
In Fallouja, the mayor's office is attacked every couple of months; one appointed mayor resigned and the current one appears to exert little influence. The local security forces — the police and the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps — have been under almost constant siege.
Six weeks ago, insurgents and criminal elements assaulted the police headquarters, killing at least 14 officers and freeing prisoners from the jail. If anyone had any doubt who controlled Fallouja before that incident, no one did afterward.
The U.S. military has vastly understaffed both its own operations and also those of the Iraqi police, said Clarke, the defense studies professor.
A key to preserving order in Northern Ireland, for example, was having enough police to "put eyes on every corner," he said, adding that the U.S.-led forces must remain in a support role for the local authorities.
In a peaceful country with a developed economy, two police officers per 1,000 people are enough to maintain calm, Clarke said. In Northern Ireland in the 1970s, the police needed 20 per 1,000. But in Iraq, 20 security personnel per 1,000 people would translate to 500,000 security forces — far more than the Iraqi personnel and coalition troops combined.
The Marines who now surround Fallouja are the fourth set of U.S. forces to occupy the area in the last year. They had recently promised to try a model more similar to that used by British troops in the southern city of Basra: foot patrols and intensive interaction with locals to create trust. But last month's fatal firefight between Marines and residents that killed up to 20 Iraqis, followed by the attack on U.S. civilians, greatly complicates the prospects for such efforts.
Commenting on British forces' efforts to reach out to the local population in Northern Ireland, Clarke made clear such battles are won over years, not months. "That was a pretty uphill struggle in the 1970s, but by the 1980s it caught on," he said. "It did take 20 odd years and 3,000 deaths."
Dodge, the Iraq expert, agreed. "The first question is, can the U.S. troops control this area of the [Sunni] Triangle? The second question is, can U.S. troops control Iraq?" he said. "The answer to both questions is, painfully, 'No.' "
Hostility Has Increased
Even with increased personnel 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 resentment and a poisonous atmosphere in which revenge is the town watchword.
Askeri, the former brigadier general, says the Americans did not understand the trouble they were courting when they began operations in the Euphrates Valley. For many of the locals, especially those who are less educated, ancient tribal customs of honor, inculcated from childhood and fanned by fundamentalist imams, have more influence than anything else.
"Some of these people are still ready to kill a cousin or even a brother over an insult, even if it is something quite trivial, so imagine how a person like that will feel when the Marines perform a raid and kick down his door and force him face down on the floor in front of his wife and his children and bind his hands and feet like a sheep," Askeri said.
Even if the man is released just a few days later — a frequent occurrence — the damage will have been done, he said.
"He will feel tremendously humiliated to have been seen in this way in front of his wife and family members, and he will begin to think of revenge," he said. "And in an effort to repair his damaged self-respect, he will go into the melting pot of the resistance."
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times