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The belligerent trumpetings of the US Marines bode ill for Fallujah. Sgt Major Carlton W Kent, the senior enlisted marine in Iraq, told troops that the battle would be no different from Iwo Jima. In an analogy the Pentagon may not relish, he recalled the Tet offensive in Vietnam in 1968 and added: “This is another Hue city.”
American voters last week never seemed to take on board the extent of the US military failure in Iraq. The rebel control of Fallujah, half an hour’s drive from Baghdad, was the most evident symbol of this. It was as if a British government in London had been forced to watch as an enemy force occupied Reading for six months.
The US army ceded control of much of western Iraq during the Sunni uprising last April. Its failure to recover fully from this setback underlines the extent to which the US as a military power has proved itself much weaker than the rest of the world had assumed before the invasion of Iraq last year.
There is no doubt that the US can recapture Fallujah, if only by blowing most of it up. But this is unlikely to have much of an effect on the guerrilla war in central and northern Iraq which continues to escalate. It is still unclear how far the rebels will stand and fight against the massed firepower of the marines and the US air force. They know they are far more effective in launching pin-prick attacks with roadside bombs and suicide bombers.
The recapture of Fallujah is likely to be as disappointing in terms of ending the resistance as was the capture of Saddam Hussein last December or the hand-over of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government at the end of June. Each event was billed as a success which would tip the balance towards the US. Instead the fighting got bloodier and more widespread.
There should be no mystery about why this is happening. All countries object to being occupied. Foreign invasions provoke nationalist resistance. This has happened with extraordinary speed in Iraq because of the ineptitude of the US civil and military commanders, but in the long term it would have happened anyway.
The US in Iraq has always behaved as if the resistance was fomented by foreign powers or adherents of Saddam Hussein. A lesson of the ground war last year was that few Iraqis were prepared to get killed for their old leader. Earlier this year I asked American helicopter pilots operating from a base near Fallujah whom they thought they were fighting. They said firmly that they were at war with “FFs” and “FRLs”. These turned out to be Foreign Fighters and Former Regime Loyalists. One of the pilots added nervously that there seemed to be a third somewhat shadowy group “who want us to go home”.
The US and the British are trying to seize Fallujah and the central Euphrates cities . These may have been the original heartlands of the rebellion, but today there are guerrilla attacks in every Sunni region in Iraq. US and interim government control of Baghdad is limited.
One of the strangest justifications for the attack on Fallujah is that it will allow an election to take place. This would only be true if the Sunni rebellion was a mirage and was entirely the work of FFs and FRLs oppressing a local population yearning to break free. A much more likely result of an increase in the fighting is a boycott of the election by the Sunnis. Even if they do vote then there is no reason to suppose that the guerrillas will stop fighting any more than the IRA laid down its arms despite numerous elections in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s.
The election will take place in January and voting will be heavy because Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shia religious leader, wants the Shia to show at the polls that they are 60 per cent of the population. The Kurds, who total another 20 per cent, will also take part. But Sistani has made clear ever since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein that he is against the occupation and has steadfastly refused to meet American officials. The Sunni, another 20 per cent of the population, have shown that they are strong enough to destabilise Iraq just as long as they want to. (The Kurds, with a similar proportion of the population, were able to destabilise Iraq for almost half a century.)
It is worth remembering that the elections are taking place largely because of armed resistance. Until guerrilla war started in the summer of last year US officials in Baghdad were speaking airily of an American occupation going on for years. It was only as the military situation deteriorated by the week that the US suddenly decided to appoint an interim government and hold elections. Many Iraqis say quietly that the only way to get concessions from the Americans is to shoot at them.
The French failed to hold Algeria against a nationalist revolt despite fielding an army of half a million. With similar numbers the US failed in Vietnam. With a much smaller army in Iraq, it will fail again. As in Algeria and Vietnam, the war in Iraq will only cease when an end to the occupation is in sight.