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Fallouja: No Good Options

U.S. military promises to avenge contractors' deaths. But previous efforts to bring the Sunni stronghold in line have increased tensions.

April 04, 2004|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Not for the first time, the U.S. military has sworn to "pacify" Fallouja. But none of the options facing commanders in the defiant Sunni Triangle city appear to hold more promise than the gamut of tactics that have been attempted, without success, for nearly a year.

Since last April, U.S. commanders in western Iraq have tried everything from withdrawing troops from the city at the behest of local leaders to house-to-house searches and group arrests.

The former strategy gave the insurgents free rein to use the city as a base for disrupting other areas of the country. The latter tactic often resulted in civilian casualties, spawning a dynamic of revenge -- common in tribal societies such as Fallouja's -- that in turn swelled the ranks of potential insurgents.

The U.S. military has promised to avenge the deaths of four U.S. civilian contractors whose remains were mutilated in the city last week. Military officials say no options have been ruled out: airpower, overwhelming ground forces, house searches and mass arrests. Such an all-out approach might bring temporary calm to this city of 300,000 but would almost certainly entail more Iraqi civilian casualties and spawn anger and likely retaliation throughout the Sunni Muslim regions of Iraq that have been the strongholds of the insurgency.

"There really are no good options for the military in this situation," said Michael Clarke, professor of defense studies at King's College in London.

Robin Bhatty, a senior analyst with the Washington-based International Crisis Group who is focusing on security issues in Iraq, sees a similar conundrum. "The U.S. can't leave, because Iraqi security forces are simply not ready for the job, but they also can't blow the whole place to pieces," he said, noting that Iraqi civilian casualties inflicted by the U.S. military last April set off the round of reprisals that is still playing out.

A hard look at the intractable situation in Fallouja -- and, to a lesser degree, elsewhere in the Sunni Triangle -- points up the difficulties facing the U.S. troops there, according to British, American and Iraqi observers.

Several experts contend that, from the beginning, the U.S. failed to understand the complex social and political factors at work in the towns along the Euphrates River. The local power structure is the product of alliances between fiercely insular tribal clans, a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement and former Baath Party businessmen and intelligence officers, who have helped bankroll the insurgency and plot some of its more sophisticated attacks.

Only a handful of people are active insurgents, but because of widespread antagonism toward all Westerners and the inability of the U.S.-led coalition to crush the insurgency, the local population is always hedging its bets, careful not to alienate the forces that could soon be in charge again.

The military used tactics such as house searches and middle-of-the-night arrests that humiliated the conservative Sunni population. The military also often undermined the power of local authority figures who, experts say, were the only hope for gaining control of the region.

If the U.S. had negotiated with tribal leaders and the clerics when American forces first arrived and given them the authority to control the city and the responsibility for ensuring that no harm came to U.S. troops, the situation could have been kept under control, Iraqi and Western experts say.

"Fallouja people are from old Arabian desert tribes.... The people will respect what the chieftains say," said Mohammed Askeri, a former brigadier general in the Iraqi army who specialized in strategy. "By dividing up responsibility for the city and the surrounding area among the tribal chiefs, the U.S. would put responsibility for security in the hands of the people of that area."

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'Series of Bargains'

Others point out that it would have been problematic for the U.S. to hand over authority to some of the very people whom U.S. soldiers were trying to arrest for crimes under Saddam Hussein's regime.

"The U.S. doesn't control Iraq -- what they've done is to strike a series of bargains with local actors in the society. One of the problems with the Sunni Triangle is that those deals can't be struck because the very people that could strike them are the people the occupation is trying to get rid of," said Toby Dodge, an expert on Iraq at the University of Warwick in Britain.

But even if the military was unable or unwilling to make deals with some local leaders, some observers say, soldiers should have taken care to not damage U.S. efforts in the region by slighting some authority figures.

"When a sheik, the most respected man in his tribe, comes to the U.S. base to ask for the release of one of his tribesmen whom he says has been wrongly imprisoned and offers to take responsibility for the person, and the troops ignore him or deny they arrested such a person, it is a humiliation for him," Askeri said.

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