The United States military assault on the city of Fallujah has lasted four days and is still underway. American sources indicate that it may take several more days for their side to secure control of the city.
The extensive reporting of the fighting in the western media relies heavily on reports from journalists embedded with US troops and operating under restrictions, with only a few outlets able to send reliable information from inside the city. Far more such information is available to regional news channels like al-Jazeera.
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Amidst the battle, three developments are clear which in combination are likely to have significant effects within Iraq and beyond. First, the US military has gathered together forces massively greater than in April 2004 when the marines were unable to gain control of the city. It now has up to 15,000 troops available, compared with 3,000 seven months ago. This points to an absolute determination to take control of the city and recalls the doctrine of massive force applied in the 1991 Iraq war.
Second, the USs primary tactic is to make steady advances into the urban environment, deploying large-scale force to saturate and destroy any elements of resistance. Tanks, cannon, howitzers, helicopters, strike aircraft and the powerful AC-130 gunships are all in repeated, systematic use in a dense urban environment in this city of the mosques. Sources within the city suggest that as many as a tenth of its buildings are destroyed and half of its mosques damaged.
Third, Fallujah has acquired an almost iconic significance for the Bush administration, which seems fixated on the belief that controlling the city will curb the Iraqi insurgency. President Bushs re-election reinforces the determination to conquer this centre of resistance.
The lesson of Samarra
There is no doubt that, even if it takes several days to complete the operation, the United States has the military capability to subdue Fallujah. Already, though, there are many indications that such an outcome will have a minimal impact on the insurgency - and may even be deeply counterproductive. The last week has seen an intensity of violence and attacks across Iraq that compares with any similar period since the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime.
A single day, 6 November, is illustrative. In Haditha, up to 200 insurgents attacked a police station, killing twenty-one officers. Another police officer was killed in Baquba, and an attack on a police post in Haqlaniya killed Brigadier Shaher al-Jughaifi, the security chief for western Iraq.
Perhaps the most significant of the days events was the multiple, coordinated bombings in Samarra, 100 kilometres north of Baghdad. These killed thirty people, more than half of them police officers; it was later reported that the commander of the Iraqi National Guard in the city, Abdek Razeq Shaker Garmali, was among them.
The relevance of Samarra is that it was the site of a US military operation at the end of September that, on a smaller scale, was remarkably similar to the current assault on Fallujah. Its occasion was the presence of several hundred insurgents in the city, to be targeted by a force of 3,000 American and 2,000 Iraqi troops. The operation to take over Samarra lasted three days, by which time the US forces claimed to control 70% of the city, before handing authority to the Iraqis.
The achievement was short-lived. The insurgents filtered back into the city and, just as the current assault on Fallujah was being finalised, were able to demonstrate their continued presence with formidable force. Even after the Fallujah operation had started, reports suggested that several hundred insurgents had assumed control of large parts of the nearby city of Ramadi; there were strong indications that some of the militias active in Fallujah had simply moved to other localities.
A clash of perspectives
Notwithstanding the events in Samarra and Ramadi, the Bush administrations focus clearly remains on Fallujah. But independently of immediate events there, the wider significance of the battle for the city may lie in the very different ways it is framed in the west and in the Arab world.
From a US military perspective, the enemy in Fallujah are terrorists. Both senior military officers, and ordinary soldiers and marines, regularly employ the term in military briefings and media interviews. The implication is that any form of opposition to US forces in Iraq is, by definition, terrorist in nature, and that all counter-insurgency operations are part of the war on terror.
This linguistic shift allows all insurgents to be considered on a par with those extreme elements that kidnap and decapitate foreigners. It has a dual effect: eliminating the idea that any insurgents can be seen as resisting an occupation of their country, and making it easier to justify the use of massive force against them.
This mindset may be shared by some sectors of the domestic audiences in the United States and some European countries who see vivid television images of the firepower deployed by US troops as they move into Fallujah. But across the middle east and in much of the majority world, the message of such images is totally different. In the Arab world, in particular, Fallujah is seen as a foreign army of occupation using massive force to suppress legitimate opposition to that occupation. If to one audience Iraq appears very much a case of might is right, to the other it is graphic evidence of the determination of the United States to control a major Arab state in the heart of its region.
In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here.
The longer-term implication of this divergence of views is clear. Within Iraq, the evidence indicates that the act of subordinating Fallujah will do virtually nothing to curb the insurgency but is more likely to enhance it. More generally, in much of the Arab and Islamic world it will be seen as yet another example of foreign control, further increasing bitterness and frustration towards the United States.
Fallujah, in short, will help create the next generation of militants and a new wave of recruits for al-Qaida and its affiliates. If, at some time in the next decade, the United States loses a whole city rather than two high-rise office blocks, the origins of that tragedy may well be traced back to the impact of what is now happening in Iraq.