If the U.S. Marines storm Fallujah in the next few days, as they seem to be preparing to do, the act would transform the occupation and almost certainly for the worse.
It would mean, first, a resumption of war. No longer could U.S. officials speak of conducting mere "security and stabilization operations"—the Marines' declared mission last month when they took over the area from the Army's 82nd airborne division. SASO (the military's acronym for such operations) is essentially police work with heavy armaments in a war, or postwar, zone. It is not an accurate term for invading a city of half a million people or strafing it with gunship fire.
Full-scale warfare would also likely mean postponing the June 30 handover of sovereignty. The transfer—which the Bush administration considers "limited" to begin with—could not occur in any measure if American armed forces are engaged in "major combat operations" (as the president called them when he proclaimed that they were over last May Day). Some have dismissed this deadline as arbitrary and the transfer itself as symbolic. But symbols are important in the Middle East. A delay, for whatever reason, will confirm suspicions that Americans simply wants Iraqi oil and will never loosen their grip. A delay caused by an American escalation of conflict will clinch the matter and, as a result, strengthen popular support for the insurgents.
What is driving Bush to consider this huge step? (Its magnitude is indicated by the fact that the commanders have put the decision in the president's hands.) Does he see the insurgents as a strategic threat? Or is he seeking revenge for the brutal slaying of the four American private security guards?
If his prime motive is the latter, invading a whole city seems a disproportionate response. If it's the former, another question should be asked—what do the Iraqis think about it?
Though it's probably the case that many Iraqis, especially Shiites, would like to see the insurgents of Fallujah wiped out, there seems to be no faction in all Iraq that favors the Marines accomplishing the deed in such a wholesale manner, killing hundreds or thousands of innocents in the process.
It may turn out that there's no alternative. The insurgents, after all, aren't concentrated in one hideout. They're scattered all across the city, in towers and tunnels, or they roam inconspicuously—as in classic guerrilla doctrine—like fish in the sea.
But should it be the United States that takes such a drastic step? Do we have the right, at this point, to invade a city—knowing innocent civilians will die—in order to kill insurgents, most of whom have become insurgents in order to resist our occupation?
Bush rationalized invading Iraq on the basis of U.N. resolutions (even if the U.N. Security Council disputed his interpretation). The U.S.-led occupation authority has justified its existence and proclamations on the basis of Iraqi interests. But on what authority, with what faction's approval (or even tacit wink-and-nudge), can the United States resume full-scale warfare against Iraqis? The "coalition" forces certainly have the right to take all necessary actions, including offensive actions, to create a secure environment. But it's a large leap from stabilization and self-defense to storming a city as populous as Boston.
This is a matter not of legal nicety, but of plain political realism. The civilian deaths in Fallujah thus far have managed the remarkable feat of uniting Shiites and Sunnis in the common cause of anti-Americanism. Yesterday, the Kurds made three, as Massoud Barzani—the temporary president of Iraq's Governing Council and, as former commander of the peshmerga fighters, a Kurdish leader who has been extremely grateful for American support—said that the United States has only itself to blame for the military standoffs in Fallujah and Najaf because its troops have shifted from "an army of liberation" to "an army of occupation."
In Najaf, U.S. troops—who have moved in to occupy the base that the Spanish just abandoned—have acted with shrewd restraint, responding aggressively to fire from rebel Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr's militia but stopping well short of the city's center, holy ground whose American occupation—Bush officials clearly understand—would be resisted even by more moderate Shiites. Instead, U.S. forces are letting rival Shiite imams and militias provide legitimate resistance to Sadr. (Are special ops forces or CIA agents feeding money or arms to these rivals? It wouldn't be a bad idea.)
There are good reasons for the Marines in Fallujah to act with similar restraint and indirection. For several days, they have done just that—holding a cease-fire, to the extent possible, and maintaining a siege of the city, while negotiations are held involving the insurgents and the tribal elders.
It is unclear whether these negotiations will lead anywhere. Juan Cole, a scholar of Iraqi politics at the University of Michigan (and author of an invaluable blog on the subject), notes that there are two kinds of insurgents in Fallujah. The first kind consists of ordinary, if well-armed, locals who are angered by the occupation; they probably would obey a peace decree from the tribal elders. However, the second kind is a mix of smugglers (angry that U.S. forces have closed off the borders), Islamist fighters (who wouldn't mind dying while taking a few Americans with them), and former Baathist soldiers (who have ideological or financial motives for opposition); they almost certainly wouldn't be swayed by such decrees.
Two questions, then: What percentage of the insurgents consists of the first type? And if some kind of deal can be reached—in which, among other things, Sunnis were assured a political role in a unified Iraq—would this first type of insurgent and more peaceful Fallujans stop providing safe haven to the second type of insurgent?
If some new order does emerge, it will probably be hammered out—or at least seemingly so—by Iraqis themselves, not by the Americans (or the "coalition"), who have lost too much credibility at this point. In other words, disorder will almost certainly continue to reign—especially in Fallujah—until the Iraqis at least appear to have sovereignty.
U.S. military forces will have to remain in Iraq, no doubt for quite a while, to prevent civil war. The Iraqi army has shown itself in no shape to impose security, internally or at the borders. It will take years to train this new army and to integrate its troops with select members of the old army, who are now being lured back to service. (As nearly everyone now realizes, it was a huge mistake to disband the Iraqi army and to let Ahmad Chalabi take control of de-Baathification.)
However, U.S. forces will be effective for the months and years to come only if they are perceived as serving an Iraqi government or some genuinely international interim authority. Storming Fallujah and—an inevitable byproduct—killing many more civilians will wreck all chances that this perception might take hold.