BAGHDAD — Iraqi insurgents have extended their reach over large swaths of the country, including sections of the capital, making it unlikely that the United States can establish the stability needed for credible elections in January even if its forces succeed in Fallouja, military and political analysts say.
There is little doubt that American-led forces will recapture Fallouja within days, the analysts say. But U.S. officials who are planning for the election face another challenge: a law and order vacuum in many Sunni Muslim areas where there are no American or Iraqi forces and insurgents can operate with impunity.
Masked gunmen patrol these places, particularly at night, assassinating government officials, carrying out kidnappings and intimidating the people.
"There are large areas of countryside that are controlled 24 hours a day by the mujahedin, where people do not see U.S. forces," said Charles Heyman, a senior defense analyst for the London-based Jane's Defence Weekly.
With voting scheduled to take place in less than three months, there has been no let-up in insurgent attacks nor any sign that the government can curb them.
"You need to be able to replicate the density of troops now in Fallouja right across the Sunni Triangle, at least, and in Baghdad, and we don't have enough soldiers to do that. And it's hopeless to pretend Iraqis have the ability to do that," Heyman said.
Pentagon officials Wednesday denied that a security vacuum had developed in some areas, stating that Iraqi security forces were growing in strength and that patrols by U.S.-led forces were conducted routinely throughout the Sunni Triangle -- the heavily populated Sunni areas of central Iraq north and west of Baghdad where guerrilla attacks have been most prevalent.
"Every day we're gaining more control over the Sunni Triangle region, and the Fallouja operation is an example of that," said a senior defense official who declined to be identified.
President Bush said this week that he would consider any request for additional forces, but that U.S. military leaders "have yet to say, 'We need a substantial number of troops.' "
Nevertheless, insurgents continue to carry out attacks sowing widespread fear. In recent violence, insurgents have assassinated police officers and left their bodies in the road; they have hung the empty uniforms of slain Iraqi national guardsmen like scarecrows to warn off anyone thinking of joining the security forces; have set up checkpoints at which they robbed and threatened people. They have staged mortar and rocket attacks and vanished down back alleys and country roads. They are increasingly demonstrating an ability to shut down civic life even in many urban areas.
The insurgents, believed to be predominantly Sunnis, oppose the elections because they fear that the power they lost with the ouster of Saddam Hussein will be cemented by a popular vote. The battle for Fallouja has already caused leading Sunni clerics to urge a boycott of the poll and seems likely to further stiffen a broader Sunni resistance to voting.
With the majority Shiite Muslims insisting on elections -- and likely to stage mass protests if they are not held -- interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is pressing to bring the insurgency under control.
So far, the insurgents seem to be winning many fights.
Civil authority appears to have all but vanished in some areas. In Haditha and Haqlaniya, neighboring towns 135 miles west of Baghdad, people say they are afraid to walk the streets. Insurgents sent a strong warning months ago after the U.S. military put a local tribal leader in control. Militants killed him and his sons. A second group of leaders, including a police chief, was also deposed.
The current chairman of the city council, Khaled Hussein, who has the approval of the insurgents, painted a bleak picture of life in the city. He spoke about a weekend attack on two police stations in the towns, in which 22 police officers were killed. Some were handcuffed, then executed.
"Now the Iraqi police refuse to go to work. The shops are closed, the streets are empty and very few people go out," Hussein said.
The picture is reflected in other areas.
In Mahmoudiya, a mixed Sunni and Shiite community south of Baghdad, the streets were nearly empty Wednesday even though it was a few days before Eid, one of the biggest holidays in the Muslim calendar, when people shop for new clothes and gifts.
Small crowds gathered around Internet printouts, declarations by former Iraqi police officers and national guardsmen who swore on the Koran that they had quit their jobs.
Fresh graffiti proclaimed "Oh Muslims, Go to Jihad," "Death to Allawi and His Puppet Government," and "Long Live Fallouja."
At one of the few shops that had customers, the owner looked suspiciously at a visitor who asked why so few stores were open.
"The people are staying home because they are afraid of the armed men," he said.