After a week of fighting, US military commanders have proclaimed victory in the battle for Falluja. Yet with this military success has come an even larger setback for the United States and the Allawi government in Iraq. No sooner had American forces begun to enter Falluja than the insurgency escalated in other cities across central Iraq, and the predictable political backlash within the Sunni community began. As a result, Sunni participation in the elections is more uncertain than it was before the attack, and US forces face an even more hostile population in this region of Iraq and yet another humanitarian crisis.
The purpose of the Falluja campaign was to pacify the strategic Sunni triangle in time for the elections planned for January. By ridding Falluja of foreign fighters and hard-core Saddamists, the Pentagon believed it could blunt the insurgency by denying it a key staging center. It also believed it could help the Allawi government lure disgruntled Sunnis back into the political process. On the basis of what we’ve seen so far, the campaign has failed on both counts. By the Pentagon’s own admission, a large number of the insurgents, including many key leaders, filtered out of Falluja before the battle began. And as US forces concentrated on Falluja, insurgents increased their attacks in other parts of the country. Indeed, insurgents’ gains arguably outstripped their temporary loss of Falluja, as they reoccupied the city center of Ramadi, renewed their attack on previously pacified Samarra and left government authority tottering in the key city of Mosul.
The Allawi government’s strategy of bringing more Sunnis into the process has been damaged. The initial response of the Sunni leadership was overwhelmingly negative; the most prominent Sunni party threatened to withdraw from the interim government, and leading Sunni clerics called for an election boycott. Public outcry over the Falluja attack may make it difficult for Sunni groups to cooperate with Allawi in the run-up to the elections or to participate in a government over which he presides.
As for the Sunni people, many may not have supported the jihadists among them, but they are unlikely to blame them for the catastrophe inflicted on their city. Many of those Sunnis the Allawi government and the Bush Administration want to draw back into the political process are the same people whose homes have been leveled and families displaced. When the 200,000 residents who fled return to Falluja, they’ll find a city in ruins. Indeed, the viciousness of the US assault–exemplified by the videotaped fatal shooting of a wounded man in a mosque by a US Marine–led the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to denounce the killings of civilians and injured people, saying violators of human rights laws “must be brought to justice.” One Red Cross official estimates that there have been 800 civilian deaths. Meanwhile, more insurgents have been created, not just in Falluja but also in towns and cities across Iraq, and indeed all across the Arab world.
Such, of course, is the dilemma of being an occupying power fighting a nationalist guerrilla war that has taken on deep religious significance–which is why the invasion of Iraq was a colossal strategic misjudgment from the beginning. But this Administration has continued to compound that mistake by refusing either to withdraw its forces or to give way to an international trusteeship. Faced with the prospect of defeat, the Administration has done in Falluja what it knows best: Escalate military action with no regard for the consequences–either for Iraqis or for our long-term position in the Arab and the Islamic world.
The Administration has also, predictably, tried to shift the blame for the worsening outlook for elections to the United Nations. American officials have suggested that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was being obstructionist with his letter warning that an assault on Falluja would further alienate the Iraqi people and with his unwillingness to commit more UN electoral workers to Iraq. But the White House has no grounds to complain: Despite the dangerous security situation in Iraq, the UN, according to the New York Times, has “succeeded in training 6,000 election registrars and opening up hundreds of registration places across the country.” Indeed, because of the UN’s heroic efforts, voter registration reportedly is proceeding ahead of schedule–or was, until the Falluja offensive.
One would have hoped that the mess in Iraq would make the Administration more open to reason and international advice. But the replacement of Secretary of State Colin Powell with Bush’s loyal National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, along with the speculation that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is staying on, suggests that the Administration is committed to its hard ideological position on Iraq. Thus, we must conclude that the destruction of Falluja is just the beginning of the next phase of a long and costly tragedy for us and the Iraqi people–and that only an active antiwar opposition that builds the broadest possible coalition, one capable of exerting concerted pressure on Congress and the White House, can bring this tragedy to a close.