Falluja Pullout Left Haven of Insurgents, Officials Say

NYT – Falluja Pullout Left Haven of Insurgents, Officials Say

American and Iraqi officials say that a decision in April to pull back American forces from Falluja inadvertently created a safe haven for terrorists and insurgents there. But officials are reluctant to send American troops back into the city for fear of touching off another uprising. The officials say they are unsure how to proceed, but agree they merely postponed the problem when the Americans halted an attack in April, brokering a deal to keep Americans out of Falluja and allow local Iraqis to police the city instead.

Iraqi and American officials say they would prefer to re-enter the city with a sizable force of Iraqi soldiers, perhaps backed up by Americans. But they concede that an Iraqi force capable of mounting an effective assault on Falluja, a city of 250,000 people, is months or even years away. As a result, the Americans and the new Iraqi government are faced with a growing danger that – as long as they adhere to the agreement to stay out of the city – they are nearly powerless to confront. “There is no question that Falluja is a safe haven,” said Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, until last week the head of all military forces in the country. “At some point it is going to have to be dealt with.”

American and Iraqi intelligence reports suggest that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian believed to be responsible for scores of attacks here, is using Falluja as a base for operations. He is thought to be working with dozens of hard-core Islamist fighters, many of them from outside the country, and former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. Iraqi officials say the terrorists are using the city to assemble car bombs and other such weapons before sending them to Baghdad and other cities. The Iraqi officials say the security force formed to police the city, called the Falluja Brigade, has had little or no effect in breaking up the terrorist networks inside the city. The brigade is made up largely of former Baathists and some insurgents.

Senior Iraqi officials say the government in Falluja has been effectively replaced by a group of insurgent leaders, many of them Islamist extremists, who dominate most decisions affecting the city. Former members of the Baath Party are using the city as a base to regroup, and recently held a meeting to plot a strategy to return to power, the Iraqi officials said.

The Americans say they could regain control of Falluja by military means, but likely at a cost of hundreds of Iraqi lives. They fear that significant bloodshed could spark the same sort of backlash as in April, when reports of as many as 600 people being killed inside the city became a rallying cry around Iraq and the Middle East and seriously strained relations with the Iraqi government.

That’s the rub, no? I was unhappy about the decision at the time but am not sure what the alternative was. Oliver Willis says this proves Rumsfeld’s incompetence, “They told him we needed more troops. He laughed and kicked people out.” Attaturk agrees, using more juvenile language. Presuming that we had more troops, though, what would they have done? I’m not sure we have the stomach for killing mass quantities of civilians in order to flush out insurgents that are contained.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.