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After Fallujah: What's next?

What can we expect after the jihadist insurgency lost control of their capital city

Refugees from Fallujah reach a US Marine checkpoint at the outskirts of Fallujah, Iraq, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2004.  Dead bodies lay on the streets of Jumhuriya, with dogs hovering around them, witnesses said. Residents ran out of food in a city that had its electricity cut.
Anja Niedringhaus / AP
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WASHINGTON - Now that U.S. and Iraqi forces control “Jihad City,” (a.k.a Fallujah), what should we expect next in the war with Iraq’s jihadist insurgency? One certain result will be the continuation of U.S.-Iraqi efforts to stabilize the country ahead of January’s national elections. Another certainty is that the jihadists, in spite of their setback in Fallujah, will persist in their efforts to enflame the country and obstruct the electoral process.

The U.S., in cooperation with the Allawi government, has scored a qualitative victory in Fallujah. Despite the continuing skirmishes inside the city, the attacks insurgents are mounting across the country, the assault on the city succeeded in dismantling a crucial sanctuary of the insurgency.  Al-Qaida and its extensions in Iraq have lost their capital city for the moment, and this will affect their efforts to recruit, train and supply cells beyond the city limits.

Beating the jihadists
The holy warriors of Iraq now find themselves facing a similar situation to that which confronted the Taliban after their fall in Afghanistan: They have been forced to yield key real estate, but remain intact as an underground network. However, the U.S., the Iraqi government and their allies will have to move quickly to lock in the gains of Fallujah. Here are some goals they should try to achieve between now and the election:

  • Handing off security responsibilities in Fallujah from the U.S. Marines to Iraqi units, keeping the American profile as low as possible. Iraqi soldiers and National Guardsmen are far better suited to establish friendly relations with Fallujah’s war-weary citizens. It is important that the Iraqi government’s forces and not American “occupiers” are seen to fill the vacuum left in the wake of the rout inflicted on the jihadists. Allawi should also take steps to nullify the influence of al-Qaida’s radical Wahabi brand of Islam, which has made much of the fact that the Iraqi forces taking part in the battle were largely Kurds and Shiites. To counter this, Allawi should consider appointing a Sunni Arab commander of the force that takes control of Fallujah. If possible, he should replace the troops that supported the U.S. assault there with Sunni Arabs.
  • Establishing a local authority with prominent Arab Sunnis inside the city. Sheikh Ghazi Al-Yawar, Iraq’s president, should visit the city along with Sunni tribal chiefs and moderate Sunni clerics. Fallujah’s population, still terrified, yearn for strong, compassionate leadership. Seeing prominent members of the Sunni community up close will help speed the return of normalcy.
  • Establishing a local radio station— possibly with the name Voice of Fallujah— so that local residents can identify with their own urban identity.  The government should also send a television crew from al Hurra, the U.S.-financed Virginia-based Arab network, to cover the reconstruction of Fallujah.
  • Begin rebuilding the city and let the Arab world know it is happening. Invite relief agencies and other international institutions with the aim of overwhelming Fallujah with assistance. The key to success here it to reinvigorate civil society there, isolating the terrorists from those who live their lives in Fallujah.
  • Continuing to engage jihadist cells in other parts of the Sunni triangle, all while trumpeting the victory in Fallujah to those Iraqis who yearn for an end to the violence.
  • Speeding up preparations for the election on Jan. 9, 2005 and settling the important details of the balloting process.

The Jihadist plan
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born terrorist the U.S. blames for many of the attacks against its forces in Iraq, can be expected to attempt some kind of attack inside Fallujah to upstage the Iraqi government’s victory there. They will step up efforts to punish those who will collaborate with government that emerges in the city, and ultimately this may be the struggle that determines whether the military victory was a temporary setback for the jihadists or a permanent solution. In al-Qaida’s myriad chat rooms, the retaking of Fallujah is order No. 1.  This does not mean an assault that takes on the Marines. Rather, it means “re-terrorizing” the city. For the jihadis, chaos = victory.

But the jihadists are likely to expand the battlefield to include the entire Sunni Triangle. Their chat rooms and web sites have already called for an uprising across the region from Mosul to Baghdad. On the ground, they have attempted to burst into several villages north of the Iraqi capital, and they struck with surprising force in Mosul as the battle in Fallujah raged.

North of the capital, they have declared a “Muthallat al mawt”— a triangle of death. As ambushes and roadside bombings follow one after another, the Jihadi plan becomes clearer: Keep the enemy busy as long as possible. This doctrine is called al Ishghal. It calls for engaging the “Crusader forces” wherever possible, without attempting to hold on to territory, all the while forcing the new Iraqi government to make unpopular decisions (like green-lighting the Fallujah assault).

The day U.S. forces were completing their advance inside the city, I was monitoring Fallujah’s chat room for MSNBC. The clerics’ orders were loud and clear: “Withdraw from the fronts, sink inside the streets, and re-emerge all over the other towns.” The Zarqawi command had to answer an imminent danger: demoralization of its fighters. The ideological commissars had to improvise a response to keep the flames alive.

Zarqawi is off balance, but not out of action. Because of the fall of Fallujah, Zarqawi has only one option: To respond systematically everywhere else he has “troops.” Strategically, this could be a mistake. Before he lost Fallujah, he had the tactical initiative – striking where and when he chose. But after the fall of the city, Zarqawi must engage coalition and Iraqi government forces everywhere he can to show the insurgency is not withering. By doing so, however, he risks showing his hand.  And while he may wreak havoc in the Triangle, his ultimate goal— the Talibanization of Iraq—will be far more difficult to achieve.

Iraq is in for a couple of very rough months. Allawi, with the Americans watching his back, has an advantage right now. But Zarqawi is not done yet.

Dr Walid Phares is a professor of Middle East Studies and a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington D.C. He is also an analyst for MSNBC TV.


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