FALLUJAH, Iraq -- From the porthole of his bunker just outside the city, U.S. Marine Capt. Jeff Stevenson could see no more than the first few rows of brick-and-concrete homes along Fallujah's urban fringe as he squinted into the setting desert sun. But his obscured view was enough to sense trouble.
A half-dozen houses were flattened. Others were punched with tank rounds. Each of them, Stevenson said, had been used by insurgents to fire at his bunker, which is fortified with dirt-filled mesh barriers.
Iraqi police officers and National Guardsmen, who should have been patrolling the streets, were nowhere to be found. A dusty pile of canvas 100 yards away provided the only reminder of the Fallujah Brigade, the now-disbanded Iraqi security force that was supposed to restore order here. The canvas had been one of the brigade's tents. It was gunned down after several members took potshots at Stevenson's men.
"Fallujah has become a cancer," declared Stevenson, echoing a metaphor used by several senior U.S. commanders in Iraq.
A collection of anti-American forces -- former Baath Party loyalists, Islamic extremists and foreign militants -- have been expanding their presence in Fallujah since the Marines withdrew from positions in the city in April and handed over responsibility for security to the Fallujah Brigade. According to U.S. military officials and residents, the insurgents have since taken over the local government, co-opted and cowed Iraqi security forces, and turned the area into a staging ground for terrorist attacks in Baghdad, located about 35 miles to the east.
But the U.S. military command in Iraq is in no hurry to order the Marines back into the city. Officers such as Stevenson, a tall Californian whose unit, the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment, would be among the front-line forces in an offensive, are biding their time in bunkers and observation posts outside Fallujah. Most of their days are spent keeping a highway around the city free of roadside bombs.
Instead of sending Marines charging into Fallujah as they did in April -- a move that radicalized residents and drew scores of fighters from outside Iraq to join the battle -- U.S. commanders say they want to wait until Iraq's new army is large enough, and trained enough, to assume a leading role in retaking the city.
"It doesn't do any good for us to go in and clean it up if it's a pure United States or coalition operation," said Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, the top commander responsible for Fallujah and the rest of western Iraq. "We need Iraqi security forces with us. We need to be side by side when we move in, so that when it is said and done, when you open your door the next day and look out, there's an Iraqi policeman, an Iraqi National Guardsman, an Iraqi soldier on your street."
Sattler's predecessor, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, who relinquished his command earlier this month, insisted that "the Marines we have there now could crush the city and be done with business in four days."
"But that's not what we're going to do," Conway said. Since the handover of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government in late June, he added, Fallujah "is an Iraqi problem. If there is an attack on the anti-Iraqi forces that inhabit the city, it will be done almost exclusively by Iraqis."
If Iraqi forces take the lead in an offensive, the commanders said they hope that many residents would opt not to fight. That strategy could also deprive insurgent leaders of one of their most potent recruiting messages: that Fallujah needs to be defended against an onslaught of American forces. One Marine officer said the U.S. goal was "to split the city, to get the good people of the city on one side and the terrorists on the other."
Marine officials said they hoped to follow the strategy employed in Najaf last month, when a combination of U.S. and Iraqi forces pressured militiamen loyal to a rebel Shiite cleric, Moqtada Sadr, to vacate a religious shrine. Sadr eventually agreed to a peace deal that called for U.S. troops to withdraw from the city and for newly minted Iraqi army troops to patrol the area. U.S. Marine commanders expressed optimism that a joint U.S.-Iraqi force, employing Iraqi units from outside the city, might eventually succeed in pacifying Fallujah. When Marines withdrew from the city after a three-week offensive in April, they relied on the Fallujah Brigade, made up of local members of the old Iraqi army, to restore order. Instead, the unit melted into the insurgency.
In an interview earlier this month, Conway said he did not believe that the assault on Fallujah, which he said he was ordered to carry out in April after four American security contractors were murdered and mutilated there, was the best course of action. Instead, Conway said he favored targeted operations against insurgents and continued engagement with municipal leaders.
"We felt like we had a method that we wanted to apply to Fallujah: that we ought to probably let the situation settle before we appeared to be attacking out of revenge," he said. The offensive, he added, further radicalized a restive city, leading many residents to support the insurgents. "When we were told to attack Fallujah, I think we certainly increased the level of animosity that existed," he said.