WASHINGTON — After a year of trying, the U.S. military can’t figure out how to quell the rage in Fallujah, perhaps the most dangerous city in Iraq’s most dangerous region.
Last spring, the Army’s 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment sent in a small, light force that got into a firefight and was forced to retreat. Next came the 3rd Infantry Division and, then, the 82nd Airborne with more iron-fisted approaches. When each left, the insurgents seemed as strong as ever.
Last month, the Marines arrived with a different strategy, running 24-hour-a-day patrols to hunt down insurgents while spending millions of dollars aimed at winning civilians’ hearts and minds.
But no change in strategy prevented Wednesday’s gruesome developments during one of the deadliest months since Iraq was invaded a year ago: Four American civilians dead, their charred corpses dragged through the streets and hung from bridges by jubilant crowds.
U.S. officials question strategy
At the Pentagon senior military officers are beginning to question whether any military strategy can sway a region where anger, religious zeal and intense economic need run so deep.
“We’ve got to recognize that Fallujah is certainly the hotbed of the insurgency in Iraq,” one senior officer said. “It is clearly the hardest nut to crack in terms of the religious issues.”
The area also reflects the residue of the influence wielded by ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the senior officer said.
“It is clearly where most of Saddam’s most loyal subjects have and continue to play a role and feel they have the wherewithal to resist any attempts to change,” the officer said. “That means that until we get the Iraqis in there to handle it, and we get out, this is going to continue to happen.”
That sort of pessimism is born of a difficult year in Fallujah, a city about 30 miles west of Baghdad, where Sunni Muslims maintain prayer rooms in restaurants and where women are rarely seen in public.
“When you look at Iraq’s future, it’s clear that there’s not much in it for places like Tikrit and Fallujah,” said Anthony Cordesman, a former senior Pentagon official. “They have no reason to reap anywhere near the kind of funding and infrastructure they had under the regime. They were artificially subsidized and given support and employment and preferences that they are never going to have again.”
The search for order
Since the U.S.-led occupation began, neither military forces nor Iraqi police have been able to maintain order in Fallujah for more than short periods. Their attempts have been hampered by a lack of reliable intelligence from a population that largely looks upon Americans as occupiers.
Before leaving earlier this year, the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division largely had given up efforts to maintain a major presence in Fallujah, instead retreating to the perimeters of the city and mounting patrols from there.
When the 1st Marine Division, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., took over operations in Fallujah from the Army on March 24, strategists opted to up the presence of U.S. troops on Fallujah’s streets.
Marine Corps commanders said they planned no change in their long-term tactics in Fallujah as a result of Wednesday’s deaths. Maj. Gen. James Mattis, commanding the 1st Marine Division, has told troops that the test of their mettle will be not to lash back at the Iraqis because of casualties.
To the division’s classic motto, “No better friend, no worse enemy,” Mattis has affixed a preface for the mission in Iraq’s al Anbar province, which includes Fallujah: “First, do no harm.”
The Marines are using what they call the “two-track” approach. The first track involves 24-hour patrols to hunt down insurgents and those making and planting the improvised explosive devices.
The second track is to help improve schools, clinics and other government services by pumping in money and management expertise.
“Everybody understands destroying the enemy, that’s what the Marines do,” said Lt. Eric Knapp, division spokesman. “But the second task is to diminish the conditions that caused the Iraqis to resent and distrust us.”
The need for help
As one military experiment after another fails to make a dent in the hatred of Westerners in Fallujah, analysts question whether the U.S. military can ever be successful in such an environment.
Michael Donovan, at the Center for Defense Initiatives, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank, suggested that only NATO-sponsored combat troops would have a chance.
“I don’t think the American military has the practical capability to do the kinds of stability missions needed there,” Donovan said. “You need NATO-quality troops in large numbers to supplement American forces on the ground.”
Bathsheba Crocker, co-director of the Post-Conflict Resolution Project at the Center for International Studies in Washington said: “We’ll never be totally successful in a place like Fallujah as long as we talk about winning it militarily.”