San Diego Union Tribune

April 24, 2004

Experts warn against assault on insurgents


WASHINGTON With continual deadly skirmishes testing their patience, the Marines surrounding Fallujah, Iraq, have warned militants that they have "days, not weeks" to capitulate or face an all-out assault.

Military experts say the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force clearly has the overwhelming firepower needed to crush the insurgents. But it is just as clear, they add, that an intense battle in the densely populated city would cause heavy casualties among U.S. troops and civilians, which could alienate even more Iraqis and further inflame public opinion throughout the Muslim world.

That explosive situation facing the Marines in Fallujah, and U.S. soldiers confronting a militant Muslim cleric in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, have led some experts to warn that brute military force could undermine America's long-term goals in Iraq and the Middle East.

Anthony Cordsman, the senior national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, cautioned: "The risk that the events of these (past) weeks or of the future could catalyze large amounts of Iraqis into violence against the United States or make it untenable for us to go on with the nation-building effort is a real risk and it will be a continuing risk.

"When you fight urban warfare against insurgents . . . there is only so much you can do to be politically sensitive," Cordsman added.

Jay Farrar, another CSIS analyst and a former Marine, said that dealing with the insurgency is "a political-military problem that's going to need a political-military solution. I think we're paying too much attention to the military solution."

In congressional testimony last week, Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, said the use of "disproportionate force" by U.S. troops in previous incidents has bred "new guerrillas by harming innocent civilians."

Similarly, Cordsman said that in attacking Fallujah, "we do not know whether we can effectively get more insurgents than we create."

But analysts also warn that failure to end the bloody insurgency, which has stalled efforts to rebuild the country, could inspire more resistance and further complicate the difficult effort to transfer sovereignty to Iraqis.

"Not being forceful in going after the thugs and assassins . . . makes us look weak in a population where we don't want to look weak," said Bathseba Crocker, a post-conflict specialist at CSIS.

Dan Goure, a veteran national security analyst at the Lexington Institute, said the military needs to avoid images like the "bloody fighting house to house" from the 1968 battle for Hue, Vietnam.

But he said that if the resistance "is allowed to fester, it will be much worse."

At the same time, Crocker noted, "we have the eyes of the Arab world watching us very closely and picking up every time there is a civilian casualty."

A number of Middle East experts said U.S. activities in Iraq are viewed by most Muslims as identical to Israeli military operations in Gaza and the West Bank. And the images of the Iraq conflict seen most by Muslims come from Arab television, such as the Al-Jazeera station, which coalition officials accuse of flagrantly distorting the truth.

Those political factors differentiate recent U.S. efforts to quash the armed resistance in Iraq from most past counter-insurgency operations. The aggressive instinct of U.S. military forces, particularly the Marines, further complicates matters.

"In most counter-insurgencies, you don't try to win hearts and minds, you try to crush the insurgents," Goure said. He cited the brutal tactics of past anti-insurgency actions, such as the French in Algeria, the British in Malaysia, the Indians in Kashmir and the United States in the Philippines, Nicaragua and Haiti early in the 20th century.

"We're in one of those odder situations," he said, "because we came in as liberators, not as occupiers or conquerors."

Robert Work, a retired Marine colonel now with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, noted that "the Marines' instinct is very strong. They want to deny the enemy any sanctuary in their area."

Although urban warfare "is a very tough environment," Work said, "the Marines seem to be confident that they can win this."

Because of the political sensitivities, he said, "they will try to be as discreet and precise as possible" in the fighting.

"But Marines made it clear they will not be deterred," Work said. "If someone is killing Marines, they will go after them wherever they are."

Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force commander, warned the Fallujah insurgents Thursday that they have "days, not weeks" to surrender their heavy weapons or face an assault by his troops.

Work suggested that Conway's threat was an example of the Marines playing "bad cop" while coalition authorities working to negotiate a settlement were the "good cop."

"The Marines are quite willing to both negotiate and fight," Work said. "But they are going to reduce these sanctuaries."