BAGHDAD, Iraq - The battle for Fallujah dwindled to skirmishes Sunday, but the political repercussions of the six-day offensive are likely to haunt the interim Iraqi government for months to come.
Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's decision to dismantle the city's terrorist fiefdom ahead of January parliamentary elections may have backfired, observers in Washington and Baghdad said this week. Instead of paving the way for polls, the American-led assault in Fallujah strained military resources, enraged prominent Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and unleashed fresh violence throughout the country.
As every student of military history knows, there is no purely military solution to an insurgency.
Yet few Iraqis outside Allawi's administration were optimistic that Operation Dawn had disabled the insurgency sufficiently to help pave the way for successful political solution, which depends on staging credible elections by a Jan. 31 deadline.
Rebels have spread attacks to the cities of Mosul, Samarra, Baiji, Taji, Ramadi and Baghdad. Large swaths of the country are still under curfew. Allawi has declared a nationwide state of emergency to last through January.
"It's not possible to hold elections in areas of such unrest," said Waleed al Hilli of the Dawa Party, an influential Shiite political faction with several members serving in Allawi's government. "If the situation stays this intense, for sure elections will be delayed. If calm isn't restored soon, they should be postponed."
Allawi offered a different assessment over the weekend, calling the offensive a "clear-cut victory." In just six days, he said, U.S. troops swept through Fallujah and killed more than 1,200 of the insurgents who had made it the most dangerous place in Iraq. Hundreds of others surrendered or were arrested.
Civilian casualties were minimal, Allawi continued, and about $100 million is earmarked for the reconstruction of a city virtually demolished by American airstrikes and artillery. On a visit to the southern Shiite city of Nasiriyah, the premier reassured tribal and religious leaders that elections were on track.
"There will be democratic elections and someone else could come (to power)," Allawi said.
"The insurgents had to do something (after Fallujah) to show they were not eradicated," said Steven Metz, an expert on guerrilla warfare at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. "I think it's an act of desperation on their part."
He added: "In general, there hasn't been anything like the uproar of last spring (after the Abu Ghraib photographs were published). It really does seem to me that the insurgents have irked enough people that public opinion may be up for grabs."
Nonetheless, from the mainstream to the militant, influential Iraqi politicians and clerics expressed doubts that elections would be viewed as legitimate even if they stayed on schedule.
"There are elections, and then there are legitimate, successful elections. The most we can hope for right now is the first kind," said a senior aide at the independent Iraqi Election Commission, who declined to have his name published for fear of dismissal.
A low Sunni voter turnout would imperil the results, and tempt civil war. Many U.S. actions to dismantle Saddam Hussein's power structure appear to the Sunni minority as direct attacks on their privileges under the former dictator, with the military assault on Fallujah only the latest affront. And convincing the Sunni minority that they can protect their interests at the ballot box will be difficult at best.
"The real political struggle here is emerging as how do you bring the Sunni population into this government and provide real legitimacy across every community?" said Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, during a two-day visit to Iraq last week. "The election might do that if there is a large turnout despite all the obstacles of the Sunni, but most people are somewhat skeptical."
The Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's most powerful Sunni political group, withdrew its support of Allawi's government in the early days of the offensive.
The Muslim Scholars Association, a conservative umbrella organization for up to 3,000 Sunni mosques, ordered its members to boycott elections in protest over the Fallujah assault. American and Iraqi troops then arrested several of the association's most prominent clerics.
Mohammed Bashar al Faidhi, the association's spokesman, said Fallujah made elections "an impossible dream." Television footage of hungry, displaced families and mosques in rubble only cemented the notion that America was at war with Islam. The Allawi government, he continued, is viewed as the Bush administration's proxy.
"Even if the government rebuilds, Iraqis have lost confidence in Allawi," al Faidhi said.
The U.S. military may also lack troops to secure Iraq on election day. At least 38 American troops were killed and more than 200 wounded in the Fallujah operation. At the height of battle, the Army reportedly shifted 500 soldiers from Fallujah to quell an uprising in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.
Iraqi and American politicians alike are starting to ask whether 138,000 war-weary troops will be enough for a country of 26 million with violence in many areas.
The Marines and soldiers who participated in the Fallujah operation will need rest and their equipment will require overhauling, said Jeffrey White, a former senior Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, in Washington. He said that begs the question, "Who does Ramadi?", now overrun by insurgents.
"The more cities you take on, the more Iraqi resources you are going to need. And the Iraqi police are just rotten to the core. They simply can't be relied upon to provide security," White said.
So far, Shiite support for elections has been strongest. Yet in the final days of the Fallujah battle, even Shiites expressed frustration with Allawi, a secular Shiite. Mosques and meeting halls had a clear message last week: the Sunni-based insurgency had to go, but the Iraqi government botched the job.
The country's best-known Shiite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has insisted the government not delay the January polls even though Fallujah will be "a dark cloud on the elections," said SCIRI spokesman Saad Jawad Kandeel.
"If the government really did succeed in destroying all the terrorists' dens in the city, this will help the political process," Kandeel said. "But the government must live up to its responsibility in Fallujah by compensating victims, sending relief and rebuilding the city."
More ominous was the threat by militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr this weekend to boycott of elections. Until then, his aides said, al Sadr had been quietly transforming his militia into a political movement while negotiating to join the Shiite mainstream on a slate of candidates.
Al Sadr's thousands of young, anti-American supporters could form an important mass of voters, but that participation is now in doubt.
"We did this because of what's happening in Fallujah," said Sheik Hassan Athari, an al Sadr spokesman in Baghdad. "If this injustice against the people of Fallujah continues, we would probably boycott."
Allam reported from Baghdad. Landay reported from Washington. Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Huda Ahmed and Omar Jassim contributed to this report from Baghdad
© 2004 Knight Ridder