By Eric SchmittNew York Times
October 27, 2004
A military offensive by American and Iraqi forces to reclaim rebel-held Falluja is probably inevitable and would be the largest and potentially the riskiest since the end of major combat in May 2003, senior American officers say. It would also involve major operations to seize control of Ramadi, another contested Sunni Muslim city 30 miles away, and to shut Syrian border crossings to prevent foreign fighters from streaming into Iraq, Marine commanders here say. This expanded set of combat operations reflects a growing consensus among American military commanders and Iraqi government officials that the insurgencies in the two nearby cities are linked and must be quelled at the same time.
The timing and decision to carry out any attacks or close any border crossings is up to the prime minister, Ayad Allawi, senior Marine officers say. But as peace negotiations with representatives of Falluja have broken down, senior officers say it could be just weeks before air and ground attacks begin, in a battle that officers estimate could last from several days to two weeks. "If we're told to go, it'll be decisive," Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, the commander of nearly 40,000 marines and soldiers in western and south-central Iraq, said in an interview. "The goal will be to limit the damage, limit the casualties and do it as rapidly and decisively as possible. We're not here to destroy the town. We're here to give it back."
The issue extends far beyond Falluja and Ramadi. Military officials said smashing the resistance there would deal a blow to the insurgency nationally, because Falluja in particular has been a haven and staging ground for attacks. Defeating insurgents there could help to calm the nation and set the conditions for elections, commanders say. Senior officers say they are mindful that an attack on Falluja and Ramadi could set off uprisings in other Sunni towns and possibly in Sadr City, an impoverished Shiite area of Baghdad that exploded in violence during the revolts in April. But military officers say they are planning for such contingencies.
Several important military and political decisions remain to be made before any attack, officers said. Britain is redeploying about 850 troops from Basra to an area south of Baghdad to free up American forces to swing into position near Falluja. Iraqi security forces have not yet moved into position, though General Sattler said that would happen quickly once the order is given. A last-minute settlement also is possible, as has happened before at Falluja. Commanders here insist that the planning and timing for any possible offensive has not been influenced by the American elections on Nov. 2 and that political issues have not come up in discussions with their military and civilian superiors in Baghdad or at the Pentagon.
In interviews at this dusty desert headquarters three miles east of Falluja and at other military headquarters in Iraq, commanders sketched out a broad outline for how the offensive would probably unfold. They declined to discuss specific troop numbers, tactics and important political and military decision points to protect operational security. But thousands of marines and soldiers, joined by thousands of newly trained and equipped Iraqi soldiers, police officers and commandos, would attack Falluja from multiple directions, unleashing direct tank, artillery and mortar fire against insurgent positions that had been weakened by allied airstrikes and internecine fighting in recent weeks.
A great number of residents have fled the city in recent weeks, but thousands of insurgents remain, along with vestiges of the population. While keeping the city out of government control, the insurgents have also orchestrated attacks across much of Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant who is believed to have organized attacks that have killed hundreds in Iraq from his base in Falluja, is of primary interest to the Americans. In the battle of Samarra last month, 3,000 American troops and 2,000 Iraqis fought roughly 500 insurgents. Officers estimated that perhaps three to four times that number of hard-core insurgents are in Falluja, meaning that an American-Iraqi force much larger than 5,000 troops is likely to be massed.
As in allied operations in Najaf and Samarra, Iraqi forces would be relied on to clear and secure mosques and other culturally sensitive targets, with marines and soldiers providing backup. "We'll match capabilities with the mission to have an appropriate blend" of Iraqi and American forces, said Col. John Coleman, the First Marine Expeditionary Force chief of staff. Allied warplanes including Navy FA-18's and Air Force F-16's and F-15E's would conduct air strikes against insurgent safe houses, weapons caches and other leadership targets that have been carefully analyzed for possible damage to civilian infrastructure. The bombing would be an intensified version of the nearly nightly strikes the Americans have conducted in Falluja for the past two months but would not be a huge barrage, the commanders say. The weapons of choice have been laser-guided and satellite-guided 500-pound bombs, which are considered better able to limit the risk of civilian casualties than 1,000-pound and 2,000-pound bombs.
Commanders say the offensive would get off to a fast start, but the insurgents are likely to respond with roadside bombs and car bombs to slow it, and could try to initiate popular outbursts in nearby Sunni towns. Commanders also say the air campaign in Falluja has been largely directed against the network of Mr. Zarqawi, who is considered so dangerous that the Americans have put a $25 million bounty on him. Using information from informants, spy satellites, communications intercepts and other intelligence sources, commanders have assembled a target list that will change as sites are hit, checked and hit again during battle, or added based on fresh intelligence. Military engineers and civil affairs specialists would follow quickly behind the main combat force, with the job of assessing how to restore services like water, sanitation and electricity, and of assigning contractors or military experts to the task.
General Sattler said he and his commanders were not in a rush to storm the city, contending that recent airstrikes have killed many of Mr. Zarqawi's top lieutenants and have seriously disrupted the operations of another Sunni militant leader, Omar Hadid. The insurgent leaders are wary of meeting in groups and have been forced to use couriers and trusted aides to pass messages, fearing that their telephone conversations would be monitored, General Sattler said. Indeed, American forces believe that they have come very close to killing or capturing Mr. Hadid at least twice, the general said. Mr. Zarqawi has been able to keep his leadership ranks filled but is no longer able to plot with his most trusted aides, officers said. "They are replaced by the second string and sometimes the third string," said General Sattler, who commands the First Marine Expeditionary Force. "It's a downward spiral for his organization."
Checkpoints on the main roads leading in and out of Falluja have also disrupted the insurgents' operations, commanders said. Nearly 100 people have been detained in a recent seven-day period at temporary barriers, which typically are created for an hour or two. Many of the detainees are still in American custody. In one car that was searched, American troops found rocket-propelled grenades in the trunk; in another, they found $80,000 in crisp $100 and $50 bills. But the insurgents are not giving up easily, commanders acknowledge. Car bombings and suicide attacks have increased here and in Baghdad. Mortar and artillery attacks against American troops and bases have increased, especially since the start of Ramadan in mid-October.
An offensive on Falluja would be conducted nearly at the same time as parallel military operations, or possibly political negotiations, in Ramadi, the restive capital of Al Anbar Province, just 30 miles west of Falluja, General Sattler said. Insurgents, including leaders like Muhammad Daham, have seized control of most of the city from the local Iraqi police and municipal officials using a campaign of intimidation, officers said. Although marines are present in Ramadi, the city has become increasingly violent. To keep foreign fighters from joining the battles, General Sattler said, he is considering having military-aged men prevented from crossing into Iraq from Syria at the main border crossings unless they can show they have official business in Iraq. Dr. Allawi would decide that. Senior marines said Syria's recent agreement with Iraq to police its borders had yielded results. "Cooperation has actually risen," said Col. Ron Makuta, the chief intelligence officer for the Marines in Iraq.
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