FALLOUJA, Iraq — The strategy appears simple enough.
"What we'd like to do is have the good people of Fallouja who see their country has a future -- who want to be a part of that -- to separate themselves from those who have nothing to live for," said Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which has encircled this city of 300,000.
If only it were that easy.
Counter-insurgency warfare seldom is, experts say, as U.S. forces learned painfully in Southeast Asia and the Soviet Union discovered in Afghanistan. Now Iraq is the arena -- and to make matters more difficult, the battlefield is urban. The guerrillas' strength is that they can hide among the populace when confronted with superior forces.
Little headway has been made in U.S. demands that insurgents turn in their arms, although talks continue. L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, traveled here Saturday to assist in the negotiations involving clerics, Fallouja city officials and other Iraqi intermediaries, a spokesman said. President Bush was spending the weekend at Camp David, where administration officials said he was reviewing his options. No decision had been made about U.S. military action, the officials said.
Few doubt the Marines, with their superior firepower and air dominance, could overrun the Sunni Muslim stronghold in 48 hours or so -- just as U.S. forces were able to swiftly overtake the country a year ago.
Despite the sense of a brutal inevitability closing in around Fallouja, U.S. officials remain torn about the possibility of a bloodbath among Iraqi civilians -- and the revulsion among Iraqis at the inevitable images of dead women and children. The great fear is that a swift and decisive victory in Fallouja could make things worse.
The initial Marine assault three weeks ago was a public relations disaster, even though officials said reports of 600 civilian dead were greatly exaggerated. Arabic-language networks broadcast footage of bloodied civilians, which mesmerized and outraged Iraqis.
The attack deepened many Iraqis' hostility toward their U.S. occupiers and probably bolstered enemy recruits. Fallouja became a national rallying cry -- even among Shiite Muslims, long rivals of the Sunnis.
It was the kind of scenario that the 82nd Airborne Division, which ceded control of Fallouja to the Marines a month ago, had tried for months to avoid.
"What you never want to do is create the next terrorist," Lt. Col. Brian Drinkwine, the 82nd Airborne's former commander of Fallouja, said in an interview with The Times this year. "What will happen is that extremists will come in after us and say, 'Look at what the Americans did -- they violated your rights.' And that could very well work against you.... I do not want to create excess friction."
Privately, many Marines are critical of the 82nd Airborne's six-month tenure in Fallouja. From the Marines' standpoint, the paratroopers left Fallouja to the insurgents, carrying out a containment strategy and allowing enemy forces to fester and grow.
The 82nd Airborne's strategy was to concentrate on targeted raids based on intelligence, while trying not to be a provocative presence around the traditional and conservative town. Units from the 82nd searched 1,000 or so houses in Fallouja and arrested hundreds of suspects, including "the rocket man" -- Taha Dayea Jaab, a rocket engineer and former Iraqi air force colonel alleged to be a manufacturer of sophisticated roadside bombs. Troops found triggering devices hidden in his refrigerator.
In this city of soaring minarets and turquoise-domed mosques, the occupying 82nd Airborne was adamant about respecting holy places -- it even avoided entering one mosque when a prominent imam was arrested for inciting violence against U.S. forces. The Marines have been accused of violating the sanctity of mosques -- although Conway argues that mosques lose their protected status when they become staging grounds for attacks.
Although many top loyalists of Saddam Hussein were arrested or killed, the 82nd Airborne's way of doing things left a core insurgent element in Fallouja. But the targeted tactics also resulted in fewer casualties, both civilian and military: The 82nd lost only one paratrooper during its Fallouja tenure.
And the city, while always restive, never deteriorated into open revolt. Marines said the veneer of relative calm was deceptive. The city has served as a "center of gravity" for insurgent activity throughout western and central Iraq and must be confronted, Conway said.
With an invasion seemingly imminent, however, the U.S. command hasn't found a way to confront its armed enemy without the likelihood of many civilian casualties.
Marines are considering issuing an order that all noncombatants leave the city, Conway said, though how it would be accomplished remains unclear. Many people probably would refuse to leave or be forced to remain by insurgents seeking civilian shields.