The Blog

After Falluja

Operation Iraqi Freedom is entering its decisive phase. What happens next?

11:00 PM, Nov 9, 2004 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

MORE THAN EIGHTEEN MONTHS after it began, Operation Iraqi Freedom may be entering its decisive phase. At last, the battle is being joined in the Sunni heartland. The stronghold of Saddam Hussein's rule was left relatively untouched in the initial invasion, was given a death-bed reprieve last spring, and has been the rallying point for insurgents since the fall of Baghdad. With elections scheduled for January and the Alawi government in Baghdad at risk, the inevitable could no longer be postponed.

Thus, the long-awaited "Battle of Falluja" has been joined. But though the fighting in the town of 300,000 is center stage, Falluja is best understood as just a part of a larger campaign in al Anbar province. And victory, as always, will be measured not simply in combat, but in the liberation--and the greater stability--to follow. For the United States and for a free Iraq, what matters is not how rapidly coalition forces reduce the resistance, but how safe the streets of Falluja, Ramadi, Baqubah, and other towns become in the next few months. Ultimately, it is not the body count, but the vote count that will be decisive.

That said, only success in battle can create the conditions for political success. And destroying Falluja as a citadel of insurgency is essential across Iraq and, indeed, for the larger war in the Middle East. Iraqi, Arab, Muslim, and American eyes are watching. Last April's withdrawal from Falluja was not just a tactical retreat, it was a strategic defeat. Likewise--and perhaps despite the casualties, including civilian casualties--this fight must be seen to be a victory for American and Iraqi arms.

To ensure that outcome, coalition commanders have amassed a force of about 6,000 U.S. and 2,000 Iraqi soldiers, or about four times more than the Marine force which conducted the April assault. This force includes not just dismounted infantry and Marines but two battalions of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. In preparing the battlefield, artillery and air power were used to target likely insurgent command posts and fortified positions. In his Tuesday television press conference, Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, in overall command of the attack, claimed the operation was "ahead of schedule" and that initial resistance had been lighter than feared.

Perhaps even more important, Metz said that the cordon around Falluja was complete. While any individual--such as notorious terrorist Abu Mussab al Zarqawi--may well escape, the attack is clearly designed to render the resistance in the city as ineffective as possible. As in this summer's campaign against Shia insurgents in Najaf, the meticulous dismemberment of the enemy's military organization is the prime objective of the Falluja operation.



While there will still be much work and continued fighting for a long time to come, a successful campaign in the Sunni Triangle will do much to clear the way for elections in Iraq next year. Given the many mistakes made since Saddam was toppled from power, this is a remarkable achievement. It is a testament to the persistence of President Bush and the U.S. armed forces, as well as the strong desire of Iraqis for a better future. But it is also a reflection of the weakness of the enemy. Zarqawi and his ilk have failed utterly to spark the ethnic civil war they sought. If American policymakers were slow to understand the realities of post-Saddam Iraq, the opposition has been even more unable to find a way to derail the two-steps-forward-one-step-back progress toward a new political order.



When this phase of fighting is done--perhaps in a week or 10 days--there will come a moment when the leaders of Iraq's Sunni community must seize the opportunity this campaign will create. The decision to move from war to peaceful politics lies with Sunni leaders and tribal elders, but the forces in and around Falluja will have given them a powerful incentive to choose a new path and make a constructive contribution to the future of Iraq.



Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.