- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2004

Now that United States and Iraqi forces have seized control of Fallujah, the “jihad city,” the main question is: What to expect next in Iraq’s war with the terrorists?

Two answers can be delivered on the spot. One is that the coalition plans to continue stabilization efforts preceding national elections in January. The other is that jihadis plan to enflame the country and obstruct the democratic process. The two trends can be identified and analyzed. The encounter and clash between them will determine Iraq’s future months.

The United States, in cooperation with the government of Iyad Allawi, has scored a key strategic victory in Fallujah. Despite skirmishes inside the city, attacks in the Sunni Triangle and car bombings by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s cells across the country, the coalition has dismantled a crucial structure of jihadism and denied its enemies an open geographical sanctuary. Al Qaeda and its extensions in Iraq have lost their capital city and space for command and control for the moment. Recruitment and strategic logistics will be deeply affected. Zarqawi’s terror brigades have sunk to a semi-underground level even as they send videotapes to al Jazeera.

The United States, the Allawi government and their allies will need to move fast to secure some vital goals during this period. Here is a list of imperatives they should undertake.

First, deploy Iraqi forces and U.S. National Guard contingents in Fallujah — and make them as visible as possible in the city. Iraqi soldiers and U.S. guardsmen have to be the first and real peacemakers. In the context of offsetting the Wahabi network and its sectarian plots, the coalition should appoint a Sunni Arab as commander of the Iraqi forces in the city, and try to deploy the most “Sunni” units inside and around the city. This will disarm the psychological warfare developed by the Salafists.

Second, establish a local authority with prominent Sunni Arabs inside the city. Iraq’s president, Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar, a Sunni, and Sunni tribal chiefs should visit the city, along with moderate Sunni clerics.

Third, establish a local radio station — the name Radio Fallujah would seem promising — so that local residents can identify with their own newly-liberated political order.

Fourth, engage in reconstruction efforts and publicized them across Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world.

Fifth, send an al Hurra TV crew to the city and have it spend more than a few days there. By so doing it will be able to transmit the real picture of Fallujah on the ground to the Arab world.

Sixth, engage the remaining jihadist cells in other cities in the Sunni Triangle while using the Fallujah military victory politically in other spots.

Seventh, ignite preparations for the national elections relentlessly. Move the dynamics into the ballots process.

In the coming weeks, Zarqawi’s jihadists are expected to attempt to block the U.S.-Iraqi process. They will certainly try to strike inside Fallujah to keep the “terror” factor alive inside the city. We will hear from them for a while in various shapes and forms. They will move to punish those who collaborate with the local government. That struggle, between the local Salafis and the pro-government officials, will make or break the success of the Fallujah military success. But al Qaeda’s groups are expected to take the battle to the entire triangle. Their chat rooms and web sites have already called for a jihad intifada across the land from Mosul to Baghdad. On the ground, they have attempted to burst in several villages north of the Iraqi capital into the Arab neighborhoods of Mosul in the north. In a sum, because of the fall of Fallujah, Zarqawi has only one option: To respond strategically everywhere else he has “troops.” In strategic terms, that could be a mistake. For before the liberation of Fallujah, he had the tactical initiative in his own hands. He could select the time and the target of this choice. But after the fall of the Salafi-controlled city, he has no choice but to engage — and engage fully — all over the Triangle. In analytical terms, he is now “showing” his infantry and its locations. He may be able to wreck havoc in the Triangle but — after the loss of Fallujah — his Talibanesque project for Iraq is more difficult to achieve.

The very near future of Iraq will witness a rough patch, where the jihadists take the terror on a ballistic path so that they would try to deny Iraqis from reaching their democratic benchmark in January. The U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqi government will attempt to deny the terrorists any major success, while organizing the elections as best they can. It is neck-to-neck, with Allawi in the clear lead, but not off Zarqawi’s danger completely.

Walid Phares is a professor of Middle East Studies and a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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