In Two Sieges, U.S. Finds Itself Shut Out
"If we let them get away, they'll just find another place to bring their breed of terror and chaos," a senior military commander said. "That's what this war is all about: It's about eliminating breeding grounds for terrorists."
White House Sets Strategy
U.S. military officials in Iraq said that because of political sensitivities, overall policy decisions about the standoff in Fallujah are being made by the White House, and Marine commanders have been reluctant to make public pronouncements about what should be done. But privately, many say they believe the only way to eliminate the insurgency is through a series of large raids.
They note that a cease-fire agreement signed April 19 has largely been ignored by people in the city. Although the deal called for such heavy arms as mortars and rocket-propelled grenades to be surrendered to the Marines, all they have received is a small assortment of rusty, inoperable weapons.
More significantly, Marines note, insurgents were supposed to stop attacking U.S. positions. But front-line Marine posts are fired on almost daily in some places, prompting the Americans to respond with everything from sniper fire to precision-guided 500-pound bombs dropped by Air Force fighter jets.
"The only way to ensure that we really get these guys is for us to go in and take them out," a Marine officer said.
Sattler, the Centcom operations chief, said the Marines and the Army's 1st Infantry Division, which has responsibility for north-central Iraq, have requested more armored equipment, including tanks and personnel carriers. Rotating into Iraq earlier this year, these units chose to leave much of their armor behind to allow greater mobility and closer contact with Iraqis, Sattler said.
On the Marine front lines, as snipers peer into the city through their scopes and infantrymen fortify their positions, there is an almost universal belief that offensive operations -- suspended in early April after just a few days of intense combat -- need to resume.
"Every one of them has a hunger deep down inside to finish the job," said Lt. Karl Blanke, a platoon leader with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. "We've now shed our blood in the city. The last thing we want to do is walk away from it."
But a resumption of offensive operations is widely opposed by Iraqis. "The only way to solve this is through a peaceful solution," said Hachem Hassani, a Sunni political leader who has participated in negotiations between city leaders and military commanders. "Attacking the city will only make matters worse."
The local leaders who participated in the discussions have described Fallujah as having been hijacked by foreign Islamic militants, people involved in the talks said. In a bid to end the standoff, the local leaders have urged U.S. officials to grant foreigners safe passage out of the city, but that request was rejected.
With persuasion and safe passage deemed unacceptable by the Americans, Iraqi officials have advocated another strategy: Let Iraqi security forces tackle the militants. The Marines have been ordered to conduct joint patrols in the city with Iraqi policemen and civil defense troops, but after three days of training conducted by Marine instructors, military officials said it was clear that the Iraqis did not have the skills to fight the insurgents on their own.
Plans to begin joint patrols on Thursday were postponed until at least Friday, Marine officials said. No reason was given, but intense clashes between insurgents and Marines on Wednesday have elevated tensions in Fallujah. The postponement also would give the Iraqis additional time for training.
Some Iraqi leaders have advocated bringing in security forces from other parts of the country or assembling a new force composed of former Iraqi army soldiers who are Sunnis. U.S. officials said both those concepts also have deep flaws. Allowing Shiites from the south or ethnic Kurds from the north to fight in Fallujah could spark ethnic and religious tensions elsewhere in Iraq; participation of Kurds in a special civil defense battalion that assisted Marines in the city earlier in the month fueled a wave of threats against Kurds living in Baghdad. Assembling a new force of military veterans also is regarded by American officials as a dicey proposition.
In Najaf, similar dynamics are in play. Any U.S. incursion into the part of the city around the tomb of Imam Ali -- one of the most sacred places in the world for Shiites -- is guaranteed to provoke a storm of anger from Iraq's Shiite majority. Imam Ali was the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company