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Tuesday, November 9

Fallujah key to salvaging Iraq

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - So far, so good - but this is just the beginning.

After two days of sometimes fierce combat to take Iraq's infamous insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, the joint U.S.-Iraqi force fighting there is ``a little ahead of schedule'' but facing important tests in the coming days.

Insurgent casualties have been ``heavy'' while U.S. casualties have been ``light,'' held to about a dozen or so as of Tuesday afternoon (EST), said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, the multinational force commander in Iraq.

``I think we're looking at several more days of intense urban fighting,'' said Metz, who declined to provide specific casualty numbers. ``The coming days will tell us whether or not the enemy is thickening as he moves back into the city.''

Metz cautioned it will take weeks, even months, to determine whether Fallujah ultimately can be put into the win column.

And it's considered a must win - the most important and largest engagement since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003.

The battle for Fallujah certainly won't end Iraq's Sunni Arab-led insurgency. But the mission the Iraqis are calling the ``new dawn'' is widely viewed as a bellwether for the country's future and a powerful indicator of when U.S. forces in Iraq might be able to start leaving.

Tactically, Fallujah has been a springboard for insurgent attacks through the restive ``Sunni triangle'' west and north of Baghdad.

Symbolically, the city of 300,000 has become a rallying point for the insurgency.

The battle also will test the newly trained Iraqi forces, which have often buckled.

``Fallujah is a microcosm for how bad Iraq's future could be,'' said Mario Mancuso, a former U.S. special operations officer in Iraq.

For the upcoming elections in Iraq to succeed and for Iraqis to begin stabilizing themselves, the battle for Fallujah must be decisive and complete, and Iraqi forces must perform well, experts say.

Here is what analysts and officers will be watching closely over the coming days, weeks and months:

Fight or flight

Commanders of the roughly 12,000 U.S. troops now engaged in Fallujah are hoping the estimated 3,000 insurgents there stand and fight rather than melt away as they have in past conflicts.

Metz said he suspects some have fled.

This created problems after the fall of Baghdad and a year later as U.S. Marines fought at the edges of Fallujah for the first time before being ordered to stand down.

Both cases left large numbers of insurgents to fight again.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stressed that this battle for Fallujah will run its course.

``The decision to go included the decision to finish - together,'' Rumsfeld said, referring to the joint decision-making with Iraq's interim government.

U.S. and Iraqi forces have ringed Fallujah and cut off its roads so fleeing will be difficult.

``In about a month or so, I'd be looking at what's happening in the surrounding cities and towns,'' said Mancuso. ``If the violence there increases significantly, then it's apparent that a lot of the terrorists and diehard insurgents made it out of Fallujah.''

Performance by Iraqis

The Iraqi forces number an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 - military planners will not be precise - and their mission primarily is to secure territory taken by U.S. forces.

In the first battle for Fallujah, many Iraqi troops refused to fight while some actually joined the insurgency, raising concerns about Iraqis ever securing their own country.

Some of the newly trained Iraqi forces have refused to engage in this second battle for Fallujah as well, although Rumsfeld wrote that off as anomalous, declining to say how many refused.

Despite a worrisome record, some Iraqi forces have performed well under tough conditions.

In the battle last summer to take the holy city of Najaf from insurgents, many of the Iraqi troops performed adequately under intense conditions.

Path to elections

In the bigger picture, Fallujah is supposed to pave a path to elections around the end of January by demonstrating the futility of the insurgency.But it could backfire.

Heavy civilian body counts could turn Iraq's Sunni Arabs, who make up roughly 20 percent of the population, away from the political process. Already, some of the leading Sunni clerics have called for an election boycott because of the Fallujah assault.

The Bush administration and Iraq's interim government are content to hold partial elections.

But a boycott could pit the Sunnis against Iraq's majority Shiites and also Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of the population.

The Kurds have been voting in their autonomous areas in northern Iraq for 12 years and are eager to do so again. Leading Shiite clerics have declared voting a sacred duty.

Disenfranchised, unemployed Sunnis would be extremely dangerous to a fledgling democracy and ultimately could delay a U.S. exit from Iraq.