With Monday’s launch of "Operation Phantom Fury" to regain control of the key insurgent-dominated Sunni city of Fallujah, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush appears to be moving toward another "phantom victory" in its broader quest to achieve a stable, pro-Western Iraq.
While experts here are united in the conviction that the 10,000-15,000 U.S. troops and a reportedly diminishing number of Iraqi auxiliaries will militarily crush the estimated 1,000-4,000 insurgents who remain in the city, they also believe the eventual outcome will mark yet another political setback to stabilizing the country.
In particular, the operation, especially if bloody and protracted, will almost certainly further alienate the Sunni population, who constitute about 20 percent of Iraq’s 25 million people, not to mention the much larger Sunni communities in neighboring countries, including Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey.
"The entire Arab public opinion, which had hoped for Bush’s [electoral] defeat, has been watching developments carefully," noted As’ad Abukhalil, an Iraq specialist at the University of California at Berkeley. "But now they will see the scenes of carnage on live TV contrasted with the celebratory ambiance in Washington, D.C."
The campaign also threatens to split the interim Iraqi government whose president, Ghazi al-Yawar, has opposed a major offensive and last April threatened to resign after hundreds of civilians were reported killed when U.S. Marines last tried to take Fallujah.
"There was already a struggle within the [Iraqi] Sunni community between those open to participation in January’s elections and those who favor a boycott," noted Juan Cole, an Iraq expert at the University of Michigan. "An ‘iron fist’ policy is likely to shift the balance of power in the community toward the rejectionists."
"So, in going forward with the campaign, U.S. forces are really shooting themselves in the foot," Cole added, noting that while U.S. forces clearly defeated the ragtag Mahdi militia of Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf in August, they also succeeded in boosting the young cleric’s political standing within and even beyond the majority Shi’ite community to unprecedented heights, according to surveys taken the following month.
That, of course, is not the way the Bush administration sees either Operation Phantom Fury (soon to be renamed "New Dawn") or last August’s Najaf campaign, which it has depicted as both a military and a political victory because of Sadr’s tentative decision to take part in January’s vote and the militia’s partial disarmament in Baghdad’s Sadr City.
In its view, the persistence of insurgent control of one of the "Sunni Triangle’s" largest towns, its status as a "no-go" area, and its use as a base for attacks all over the country could not be tolerated given the overriding short-term objective of pulling off the national elections.
"One part of the country cannot remain under the rule of assassins … and the remnants of [former Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein," declared Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld at a press conference Monday.
"You can’t have a country if you have a safe haven for people who chop people’s heads off. These folks are determined. They’re killers. They chop people’s heads off. They’re getting money from around the world. They’re getting recruits."
Rumsfeld was careful to stress that victory in the battle of Fallujah would not end the insurgency. But he argued that if successful elections are held in January as a result of defeating the insurgents there, a "tipping point" in securing Iraq could be reached, similar to one he said had been reached in Afghanistan, where unexpectedly smooth polls were carried out last month.
Hawks within and outside the Bush administration have been calling for a major offensive against the Fallujah-based insurgency virtually since April, when White House policymakers, fearful of the political costs of what had become a bloodbath, called off a three-week Marine offensive to retake the city and punish those responsible for the lynching and mutilation of four U.S. security contractors.
The Marines handed over control to a group of military and security officers from the regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, many of who were apparently fighting with the insurgency. Since then, the city has reportedly been run by a coalition of former Ba’athists, other nationalists, fundamentalist Iraqi Sunnis, and some foreign fighters who, according to Washington, answer to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who U.S. officials say is linked to the al-Qaeda terrorist movement.
As the U.S. election drew to a close last week, the neoconservative commentators, in particular, began baying for a no-holds-barred campaign as a way of "setting an example" to insurgents elsewhere in Iraq, and indeed in the Arab world as a whole.
"Even if Fallujah has to go the way of Carthage, reduced to shards, the price will be worth it," wrote one neoconservative former military officer, Ralph Peters, in the New York Post, while the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page declared the insurgents "have to be killed if Iraq is ever going to be able to hold free elections."
The same editorial railed against United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan for sending a letter to Bush, Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair last week cautioning against an offensive.
Annan warned, "the threat or actual use of force not only risks deepening the sense of alienation of certain communities [in Iraq], but would also reinforce perceptions among the Iraqi population of a continued military occupation." The Journal called the letter a "hostile act."
Yet most experts in Washington agreed with Annan’s analysis, which they said has been bolstered by a number of developments, including the reported desertion over the weekend of more than one-half of a 500-man battalion of Iraqi National Guard that was supposed to fight alongside the Marines.
Both the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), one of the main Sunni clerical groups, and Sadr’s aides have urged their co-religionists not to take part in the assault.
More desertions will make it far more difficult for the Marines to turn over control of Fallujah, once it is retaken, to local forces, a conclusion that was also reinforced this weekend when insurgents who supposedly had been routed from Samarra in a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation set off multiple coordinated attacks in that city, killing at least a dozen National Guard and local police.
Underlining the tenuousness of the security situation, the attacks prompted Allawi to declare martial law over the entire country, except Kurdistan, for the next 60 days, a step that, as pointed out by the Los Angeles Times Monday, was starkly at odds with his declaration on a visit here in late September that of Iraq’s 18 provinces, "14 to 15 are completely safe."
The weekend’s desertions reportedly left only one fully intact Iraqi unit deployed with the Marines on the outskirts of Fallujah the 36th Battalion, whose troops were recruited mostly from Kurdish and Shi’ite militia. "If the 36th turns out to be the ‘Iraqi face’ of the new government in Fallujah," noted one worried administration official, "it’ll be seen as another occupation force."
(Inter Press Service)