IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

U.S. faces dilemma in Fallujah, Najaf

Although American officials and Iraq's U.S.-backed leaders agree that the Fallujah insurgents should be captured or killed, preferably before the Americans hand over limited sovereignty on June 30, no good options exist to accomplish that goal, according to U.S. officials familiar with the issue.
A U.S. soldier surveys his surroundings near one entrance to Fallujah earlier this week.
A U.S. soldier surveys his surroundings near one entrance to Fallujah earlier this week.Antonio Scorza / Getty Images file
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Perched atop sandbags and peering through powerful binoculars, Marine officers manning front-line positions around this tense city can see the problem clearly enough, even through the swirling dust that gives Fallujah the sepia hue of a Wild West town: Military-age men in white robes swagger about with impunity, they say, hardening their defenses and resupplying their encampments.

The Marines say the men are Sunni Muslim guerrillas who have taken over this Euphrates River city and transformed it into a stronghold of resistance to the American occupation of Iraq.

But neither here, nor in the Baghdad palace that serves as the headquarters of the U.S. occupation administration, nor in the corridors of official Washington, is the solution to the Fallujah problem clear. Although American officials and Iraq's U.S.-backed leaders agree that the insurgents should be captured or killed, preferably before the Americans hand over limited sovereignty on June 30, no good options exist to accomplish that goal, according to U.S. officials familiar with the issue.

A further incursion into Fallujah -- the only way many Marine officers say the insurgency here can be squelched -- has been rejected by local and national Iraqi leaders as an unacceptable risk to tens of thousands of noncombatants in the city.

"There are a lot of different proposals on the table, but all of them are fraught with problems," said one senior U.S. official in Iraq, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The same dilemma confronts U.S. military commanders and civilian officials 130 miles to the south, in the holy city of Najaf, as they attempt to resolve a standoff with a radical Shiite Muslim cleric and hundreds of his militiamen. Even more so than in Fallujah, a full-scale move into the city by U.S. forces would fuel Iraqi anger and further poison relations between the United States and the country's Shiite majority.

As military commanders and civilian administrators scramble to craft solutions to the crises in Fallujah and Najaf, "all the choices are unpalatable," said a senior U.S. official in Washington who spent several months in Iraq last year and who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. "No one likes the options."

Even so, the senior military and civilian officials in Baghdad and Washington are committed to resolving both crises before June 30, when the occupation authority is set to hand over limited sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government. "There's really no way that we can leave this as a mess for the new government," the senior U.S. official in Washington said.

'A loose federation'
Military officials estimate there are between several hundred and a few thousand armed insurgents in Fallujah. Speaking to reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon, Marine Maj. Gen. John F. Sattler, head of operations for U.S. Central Command, put the number at about 1,500.

"We have not been able to determine any single leader," he said in a telephone briefing from Centcom's forward headquarters in the Persian Gulf country of Qatar. "There appears to be a loose federation of individuals who have come together with a common cause, and in this particular case, it's to derail the process as we move towards sovereignty."

U.S. Officials said some of the insurgents were from other Arab nations but most were Iraqis -- a combination of Islamic extremists, loyalists of former president Saddam Hussein and criminals. People in Baghdad and other cities, however, maintain that the fighters in Fallujah are ordinary Iraqis who have taken up arms against the occupation; the sustained fighting and the Marine cordon around the city have prevented foreign journalists from independently assessing the nature of the guerrilla forces.

As they fight with Marines, some guerrillas have used techniques that suggest they have military experience, the officials said. In addition, based on the munitions and contraband uncovered by Marines during their initial foray into the city, U.S. military officials believe a large number of roadside bombs and car bombs used elsewhere in Iraq may have been manufactured in Fallujah.

A military intelligence officer noted this week that there have been no large car bombings in Baghdad since the Marines surrounded Fallujah in early April. "Fallujah is a place that is rife with terrorist leaders and bomb-makers who are responsible for attacks not just in Fallujah but across Iraq," the officer said.

Marines have established the cordon to prevent insurgents from slipping away. Combat engineers have built a six-foot sand berm along the city's southeastern fringe. Dirt-filled barriers and rows of razor wire block all roads into the city. Hundreds of Marines equipped with night-vision scopes patrol the urban edges in Humvees.

"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."

'Make matters worse'
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 commence 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.

Potential storm of anger
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.

Even so, thousands of U.S. Army soldiers have taken up positions outside the city. Although military officials said the soldiers were not planning on entering the city, they are poised to attack cleric Moqtada Sadr's militiamen if they attempt to leave or enter, or attack the soldiers. On Monday, after members of Sadr's militia attacked soldiers near Najaf, U.S. forces responded with force, killing 64 Iraqis, many or all of them militiamen, the military said.

U.S. officials regard Sadr's Mahdi Army militia as both an immediate security threat -- it has mounted sophisticated and deadly attacks on U.S. forces -- and a long-term risk to Iraq's political transition. The officials expressed concern that Sadr could use his militia to intimidate voters and candidates during elections, now proposed for January.

"We can't leave a thuggish individual with his own gang of thugs in charge of a major city and leave it for the new government to deal with," the senior U.S. official in Washington said.

In addition to demanding that Sadr disband his militia, occupation officials have insisted that he surrender to face charges related to the slaying of a rival cleric. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said this month that soldiers were under orders to capture or kill Sadr.

Such statements are no longer being made by American officials, who are keen to find a negotiated settlement with Sadr. U.S. officials express hope that other, more senior Shiite clerics will convince him to back down.

For now, though, military commanders and civilian officials appear willing to wait for negotiations to play out, even as a spokesman for the occupation authority warned this week that Sadr's militiamen were stockpiling weapons in mosques, shrines and schools, creating a "potentially explosive situation."

"It'd be great if we resolve Najaf, but to the extent that we've isolated or neutralized Sadr, at least we have the problem contained," a senior State Department official said.

U.N. envoy urges caution
With the form and composition of Iraq's interim government still undetermined, the U.S. approach to dealing with Najaf and Fallujah may also be influenced by veteran U.N. envoy Lakdhar Brahimi, who has been asked by the U.S. government to help form a caretaker administration to rule the country after June 30. Brahimi, a Sunni Arab from Algeria, has expressed concern that the military showdowns in Najaf and Fallujah risk alienating both Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites at a time when inclusion is in the national interest.

Brahimi has urged the Bush administration to find peaceful solutions in both cities. One U.S. official said Brahimi's lobbying played a role in the White House decision over the weekend to postpone a resumption of large-scale Marine raids in Fallujah.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan also has urged U.S. officials to do everything possible to reach a peaceful resolution to the standoffs. Annan told reporters Wednesday that he subscribed to the view in Iraq that "violent military action by an occupying power against the inhabitants of an occupied country will only make matters worse."

Wright reported from Washington. Staff writer Bradley Graham in Washington contributed to this report.