Assault in Falluja Is Likely, U.S. Officers Say
A military offensive by American and Iraqi forces to reclaim rebel-held Falluja is probably inevitable and would be the largest and potentially the riskiest since the end of major combat in May 2003, senior American officers say. It would also involve major operations to seize control of Ramadi, another contested Sunni Muslim city 30 miles away, and to shut Syrian border crossings to prevent foreign fighters from streaming into Iraq, Marine commanders here say. This expanded set of combat operations reflects a growing consensus among American military commanders and Iraqi government officials that the insurgencies in the two nearby cities are linked and must be quelled at the same time.
The timing and decision to carry out any attacks or close any border crossings is up to the prime minister, Ayad Allawi, senior Marine officers say. But as peace negotiations with representatives of Falluja have broken down, senior officers say it could be just weeks before air and ground attacks begin, in a battle that officers estimate could last from several days to two weeks. “If we’re told to go, it’ll be decisive,” Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, the commander of nearly 40,000 marines and soldiers in western and south-central Iraq, said in an interview. “The goal will be to limit the damage, limit the casualties and do it as rapidly and decisively as possible. We’re not here to destroy the town. We’re here to give it back.”
The issue extends far beyond Falluja and Ramadi. Military officials said smashing the resistance there would deal a blow to the insurgency nationally, because Falluja in particular has been a haven and staging ground for attacks. Defeating insurgents there could help to calm the nation and set the conditions for elections, commanders say. Senior officers say they are mindful that an attack on Falluja and Ramadi could set off uprisings in other Sunni towns and possibly in Sadr City, an impoverished Shiite area of Baghdad that exploded in violence during the revolts in April. But military officers say they are planning for such contingencies. Several important military and political decisions remain to be made before any attack, officers said. Britain is redeploying about 850 troops from Basra to an area south of Baghdad to free up American forces to swing into position near Falluja. Iraqi security forces have not yet moved into position, though General Sattler said that would happen quickly once the order is given. A last-minute settlement also is possible, as has happened before at Falluja.
Commanders here insist that the planning and timing for any possible offensive has not been influenced by the American elections on Nov. 2 and that political issues have not come up in discussions with their military and civilian superiors in Baghdad or at the Pentagon.
Indeed, one would think a decisive assualt into Fallujah would be underway now if influencing the election was the desired objective. President Bush would almost certainly gain support–and shut down Senator Kerry’s ability to criticize the conduct of the war–if major combat operations were underway, especially since victory would be inevitable.
We should have done this months ago rather than letting the insurgency fester. Our forces are so much better trained than the opposition that it only makes sense for us to have the initiative. Instead, our troops have been in reactive mode, letting the terrorists choose the time and place for engagement. A stable Iraq, if it can ever exist, can come about only after the armed militants are defeated. That’s not going to happen through negotiations, gun buybacks, or other passive strategies.