“Success” in Fallujah?

Mother Jones, CA
Nov 12 2004

“Success” in Fallujah?

On Thursday, as the military entered what it called “Phase Two” of
the battle in Fallujah, U.S. commanders were careful to stress that
they were far from victory in Iraq. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, warned Americans: “If anybody thinks
that Fallujah is going to be the end of the insurgency in Iraq, that
was never the objective, never our intention, and even never our
hope.” Marine Capt. John Griffin sounded a similarly cautious note:
“Claiming the city is secure doesn’t mean that all the resistance is
gone, it just means that we have secured the area and have control.”

By all accounts, their caution was well-advised. Even as the military
could boast that it had taken half the city and killed over 600
insurgents, larger strategic setbacks were making themselves known.
Reports were coming in that most of the key foreign
fighters—including public terrorist #1 Abu Musab Zarqawi—had fled the
city. Insurgents were opening up a second front in Mosul, and attacks
were mounting in Baghdad, Tikrit, Karbala, Baquba, Baiji, Haz, and
elsewhere. Az-Zaman reported that hundreds of Sunni Arabs in Tikrit
and Huwaijah took to the streets to protest the incursion into

On the political front, the only major Sunni party that had been
committed to the electoral process, the Iraqi Islamic Party, is now
threatening to sit out the January elections. A Sunni boycott of the
elections would deprive the elected National Assembly of much-needed
legitimacy, and risk throwing the country into sectarian war.
Already, Shiite leaders are tacitly condoning this Fallujah
assault—in stark contrast to the April incursion—perhaps counting on
larger gains in the elected government should the Sunnis be

The question, then, is how the U.S. will know whether it is winning
this conflict, in both the short and the long term. The Financial
Times today asked military experts to opine on the chances of success
in Fallujah. A consensus emerges that the U.S. should be able to take
the city: The Marines, after all, have been conducting urban war
games since the late 1990s and they’re extremely well-trained for
this sort of scenario. Holding the city, however, is another
matter—and the track record here is bleak. The last insurgent
stronghold that was retaken by the U.S., Samarra, is now slipping
back into chaos. One British military official says, “[T]he jury is
still out on whether Samarra was a success.” Peter Khalil, formerly
of the CPA, notes that “[m]ilitary forces, by their very nature, are
not trained specifically to hold cities like that.” A more high
profile and effective counter-insurgency strategy would likely
require more troops, experts say. But no troops are on the way, and
Iraqi troops have not yet shown themselves up for the task.

As for the question of “What comes after Fallujah?”, several recent
reports have indicated that foreign fighters may be moving to Mosul,
a major city in northern Iraq that has been steadily deteriorating
over the past few weeks. Mosul’s population is six times that of
Fallujah, and it is already a source of ethnic tension. As with
Kirkuk, many Kurds were driven out of the city during the 1990s,
replaced by an influx of strongly pro-Saddam Sunnis. The Kurds would
love to take Mosul, and its oil fields, back—the U.S. had to force
Kurdish peshmerga troops out of the city in the early days of the
war. There are also large numbers of Turkomen, Christians, Armenians,
Shiiites, and Yezidis living in the city. If there’s any place where
the insurgents could provoke serious ethnic violence, Mosul is it.
Meanwhile, a former Republican National Guard commander has been
bragging that the “resistance” controls over 16 cities in Iraq, as
well as some key suburbs of Baghdad. If this is true—a big
“if”—Fallujah could be only the start of a wider war.

U.S. commanders are hoping it won’t come to that. The new Pentagon
strategy for Iraq counts on a win in Fallujah to act as a “tipping
point” that isolates the foreign fighters and lure disgruntled Sunni
fighter back into the political process. As one senior official
involved in drafting the Pentagon’s new Iraq strategy told the
Washington Post: “The aim is to drive a wedge between the Sunni Arab
rejectionists and the incorrigibles. Many in the rejectionist group
feel disenfranchised and are being intimidated. They need to be
relieved of that yoke and engaged, while the extremists need to be
isolated, captured or killed.”

But for this strategy to work, the U.S. will need far better
intelligence on the insurgency itself. The track record here is also
bleak. On Monday, Michael Schuer, the former chief of the C.I.A.’s
Osama bin Laden unit, noted that “we still don’t know how big [al
Qaeda] is. We still, today, don’t know the order of battle of Al
Qaeda.” The same goes for U.S. intelligence on the Iraqi
insurgency—estimates on its strength vary widely, as do reports on
the murky role that foreign terrorists like Abu Musab Zarqawi play in
the movement. (No one has even been able to figure out how many legs
Zarqawi has.) Without better intelligence, no one can know what the
metrics for military success really are.

That leaves elections as the great hope for Iraq. On the positive
side, preparations for January elections are going better than
expected. Voter registration is proceeding on schedule, and the
European Union has recently pledged increased financial and
logistical assistance for the elections. UN officials are now
expressing cautious optimism that the elections will proceed as

Yet Iraq’s political future lays very much in doubt, now that major
Sunni political parties are threatening to boycott the election. As
Sunnis steer away from the political process, Shiite Iraqis, who make
up 60 percent of the population, are looking to consolidate their own
electoral gains. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the pre-eminent Shiite
cleric in Iraq, is organizing a unified party list that should garner
most of the Shia vote. What will be important is whether or not the
Shiites, who make up 60 percent of the population, will benefit from
high voter turnout and win more than 75 percent of the seats in the
Assembly. If so, the Shiites in the elected National Assembly would
be able to modify the nation’s constitution at will, as sociology
professor Andrew Arato has noted in his study of the constitutional

All of the Shiite parties support a strong centralized government and
plan to institute Islamic law as the law of the land. They may differ
on details—Sistani, for instance, thinks the religious clergy should
stay out of politics, while Moqtada al-Sadr envisions an Iran-style
theocracy—but they agree on the big picture, and will likely come up
with a unified vision for the future of Iraq. But heavy-handed Shiite
domination could incite the Sunnis to continue their insurgency; even
worse, it could drive Kurdish leaders in the North to demand
independence, and take it by force if they need to. While civil war
is no certainty, its probability increases by the day.

It will be difficult to tell what comes of Fallujah. The U.S. and the
Iraqi interim government will need to hold and rebuild the city, a
process that could take months. It will be more difficult still to
determine whether the insurgency has actually been quelled—there have
been temporary lulls in violence in the past, and the Pentagon has
often mistakenly believed that it had vanquished the insurgents.
Thereafter, the U.S. will need to draw the Sunnis back into the
political process—the same Sunnis who have had their homes bombed,
cities leveled, and families displaced. Thus far, there have been
virtually no signs of long-term success, and hence we have no way of
knowing for sure what the future of Iraq will look like.

– Bradford Plumer