U.S. Forces Retake Samarra, Fallujah Next

Today’s major papers contain several “good news” stories about Iraq.

After 3-Day Fight, U.S. And Iraqi Forces Retake Samarra [RSS] (NYT)

American and Iraqi forces in Samarra finished retaking the last insurgent-controlled neighborhood early Sunday, completing a relentless three-day push through this ancient city in a first step toward wresting control of important central Iraqi areas held by Sunni guerrillas. With the city in hand, American commanders said they were beginning the second phase of the operation, turning over the city to the Iraqi police and military forces the same way they took it – one neighborhood at a time.

American and Iraqi officials said the most difficult challenge was ahead, in re-establishing governmental authority and holding off what is certain to be a new round of attacks from guerrillas who melted away before the surging armies. The Americans said they had killed at least 125 insurgents, but if the past is any guide, more are likely to be lying in wait. American commanders have long said that they could retake the cities of the so-called Sunni Triangle with ease but that the difficulty lies in transferring the cities to Iraqi security forces that have less training. Until the Samarra attack, Iraqi troops had not done well in combat against insurgents. For that reason, more than 2,000 of the soldiers in the 5,000-member force that attacked Samarra are Iraqi, and many of them will be staying on after the Americans leave. The local government will come in behind them.

But on Sunday, with the city mostly quiet, the American and Iraqi forces celebrated an early success. “I guess it’s about over,” said Lt. Col. David Hubner, commander of one of the four American battalions that joined two Iraqi battalions in the battle. Colonel Hubner was resting in the cool afternoon gloom of the living room of a house that he had commandeered for his headquarters in southern Samarra.

As though a bell had been rung, people began to emerge from their homes on Sunday, gathering in small numbers on some market streets and waving warily at passing convoys of armored vehicles. Here and there, people passed along the hot, dusty streets with white flags waving over their heads.

The quick retaking of Samarra, which had fallen under the control of fundamentalists and other antigovernment insurgents, was welcome news to Iraq’s provisional government. With national elections promised by the end of January, concerns had been growing over what to do with cities that had fallen out of government control. Now, bolstered by their victory in Samarra, Iraqi officials are predicting that the other major cities under insurgent control, like Falluja, will also soon be retaken.

U.S. Forces in Iraq Regain Control of Rebel Hot Spot (LAT)

U.S. military officials on Sunday said they had regained control over this insurgent stronghold 60 miles north of Baghdad, recording a significant victory in their bid to recapture rebel-held areas in Iraq before January elections. As residents of Samarra ventured outside for the first time in two days, U.S. forces launched predawn airstrikes on Fallouja, another Sunni Triangle city that has become a “no-go” zone for U.S. and Iraqi troops. The U.S. military said it killed several militants there and destroyed a large cache of ammunition.

U.S. and Iraqi officials said Samarra would be the first in a series of intensive military thrusts aimed at quelling resistance in rebel hot spots so that national elections can be conducted safely and with maximum Iraqi participation. It remains unknown whether Iraqi security forces can maintain control over Samarra after U.S. forces withdraw, beginning this week. After a U.S. offensive here last fall, rebels reasserted themselves, making Samarra once again a place American troops avoided. National security advisor Condoleezza Rice said Sunday that it was premature to declare the Samarra operation “wrapped up, because insurgencies have a tendency to wax and wane.” “But clearly, the really good news out of this is that Iraqi forces have fought alongside American forces, and … they’ve done well,” Rice told CNN’s “Late Edition.” In previous offensives, Iraqi troops have refused to fight or have fled from insurgents.

Charles Pena, director of defense policy studies at the conservative Cato Institute, said: “The problem with dealing with an insurgency is that you may gain control in one location, only to find that you have a flare-up in another, and when you put that one out, suddenly the fire you thought you put out erupts again. And we’ve seen this pattern in Iraq.” Retired Army Col. Bob Killebrew, a former operations planner and professor of military strategy at the U.S. Army War College, said that gaining military control of Samarra may be a first but significant step toward ensuring that fair elections can be held across Iraq. “To have legitimate elections, the maximum number of Iraqi people need to be free to vote,” Killebrew said. “So Samarra is important … because a big number of Iraqi citizens live in that town and the insurgents prohibit them from participating in the political life of Iraq.” Killebrew said that for the U.S. strategy to succeed, control of Samarra must be held, and be replicated in other insurgent strongholds. “What we’re seeing right now is ideally what should have happened the first year,” he said. “We lost a year in Iraq, when government collapsed and we had nothing to fill the void and we became invaders and oppressors.”

Iraqi Forces Walking Tall In Samarra (AP – Washington Times)

Iraqi security forces, bloodied by weeks of suicide bombings and assassinations, patrolled yesterday in Samarra after a morale-boosting victory in the Sunni Triangle city. U.S. commanders praised the Iraqis’ performance and declared the operation a successful first step in a push to wrest key areas of Iraq from terrorists before January elections.

Of course, as is the nature of counter-insurgency, this comes at a price.

Some locals were angered by the civilian death toll in the city 60 miles northwest of Baghdad. Of the 70 dead brought to Samarra General Hospital since fighting erupted, 23 were children and 18 were women, hospital official Abdul-Nasser Hamed Yassin said. An additional 160 wounded persons were treated. “The people who were hurt most are normal people who have nothing to do with anything,” said Abdel Latif Hadi, 45.

This will certainly be exploited by the other side. Still, it appears we’re pressing on:

U.S. warplanes hammered another rebel-held city, Fallujah, in the latest strike in weeks of attacks targeting groups linked to terrorists, particularly the network of Jordanian militant Abu Musab Zarqawi. The city hospital said two persons were killed and 12 wounded in the air strikes. Two more persons, a man and his wife, were killed, and two others were wounded when a tank fired on a house, Dr. Rafe al-Issawi said. The U.S. military, which confirmed only one strike targeting a building where terrorists were moving weapons, regularly accuses the hospital of inflating casualty figures.

Residents said U.S. troops built temporary checkpoints across two entrances into the city, 40 miles west of Baghdad, regarded by the U.S. military as the “toughest nut to crack” in Iraq. “We’re very worried that Fallujah might be next after Samarra,” said Fallujah resident Saad Majid, 40. “I have children. I’m very worried about them. We don’t sleep all night because of the strikes.” U.S. military officials have signaled they plan to step up attacks into key Iraqi cities this fall — partly as a way to pressure terrorists into negotiating with Iraqi officials. “I have personally informed [Fallujah residents] that it will not be a picnic. It will be very difficult and devastating,” Iraqi President Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer said yesterday on the Al Arabiya television network. But he said Iraqi troops had to establish a presence in all cities. Residents said yesterday they heard sporadic explosions as U.S. and Iraqi forces hunted for rebel holdouts in an otherwise calmer Samarra. Iraqi police patrolled the city, while American soldiers and Iraqi national guard members searched houses for terrorists and weapons.

U.S. commanders praised Iraqi troops during the attack, saying they secured the hospital, a revered shrine and a centuries-old minaret. The Baghdad government has portrayed the battle as a landmark on the road to establishing an effective fighting force. Washington is eager to raise Iraqis’ fighting ability to allow U.S. forces to take a back seat in combat operations and eventually pull out of Iraq.

I don’t see much choice. The go-slow approach, designed to minimize resentment by the local populations, has clearly not worked. Until the insurgents are defeated, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to finish the reconstruction effort and hold legitimate elections.

Once Out Of Baghdad, Hope Trumps The Doubts (Rowan Scarborough, Washington Times)

[A]mid the violence, a series of positive developments unfolds daily, including the United Nations’ sponsoring of an interim government led by Iyad Allawi. The top commander in the region, Gen. John Abizaid, says Washington critics and the press have it wrong. “Every now and then in Washington, we need to take a deep breath and we need to look at what’s happening in the region as opposed to the reports of one or two journalists that happen to think that everybody in Iraq is in the resistance,” Gen. Abizaid said a week ago on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“The constant drumbeat in Washington of a war that is being lost, that can’t be won, of a resistance that is out of control, simply do not square with the facts on the ground,” the general said.

In interviews the past week with more than a half-dozen military officers and policy-makers, The Washington Times found doubts about how the battle will proceed, but a degree of confidence about the final outcome. “Iraq is a mixed bag,” said a senior Pentagon official and Bush supporter. “You see only the exciting things. I know this sounds like a trite, conservative catechism, but I see the reports every day — the good, the bad, the ugly. We are making good progress, and the bad guys are trying their hardest to [stop it].”

The question of who is winning in the daily struggle between the U.S.-led coalition and the terrorists is difficult to measure. The State Department each week updates a written briefing on what it considers progress in the country. There are facts such as these: Iraq has 1.57 million phone subscribers, up 91 percent from pre-war levels; oil production has exceeded the pre-war peak of 2.5 million barrels per day; the Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission has completed a draft voter list; and instructions will go out this week to Iraqis on how to register.

This type of economic development, coupled with free elections and the planned buildup of indigenous security forces to about 200,000, forms the Bush administration’s long-term strategy for winning Iraq. Mr. Rumsfeld expanded on this last month. “I use the word ‘tip.’ When does it tip?” Mr. Rumsfeld told The Washington Times, suggesting that at some point Iraqi civilian resentment of terrorist attacks would result in “more and more intelligence information,” leading to “pressure … so great that [the terrorists] lose recruits.”

That’s obviously the key. One wonders if it can happen while a substantial Western military force remains in Iraq.

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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 and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.