- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 29, 2004

The U.S. military is using the tenuous cease-fire in Fallujah to monitor insurgent movements and then strike with air power inside the city when provoked.

The tactic is killing scores of Iraqi holdouts and their foreign allies, as U.S. forces capitalize on intelligence assets and night-vision equipment to hit enemy guerrillas when they cluster in one or two buildings. Marine Corps commanders have the authority to call in air strikes if the enemy appears to be preparing to attack, as well as when they fire.

The Pentagon seems satisfied with this strategy for the short term, as long as the frontier city of 300,000 west of Baghdad remains sealed off, denying the insurgents fresh reinforcements and new weapons.

The net result today is that the Marines have a large cluster of insurgents — likely 1,500 or more — bottled up in certain sectors of the city that can be monitored. If rules of engagement are met, commanders call in precision munitions from Air Force AC-130 and Cobra helicopter gunships.

“The Marines, they understand the rules of engagement,” Maj. Gen. John Sattler, director of operations for U.S. Central Command, told reporters in Washington yesterday. “Although this is a cease-fire, they’re not purely defensive rules of engagement. In other words, if in fact the insurgent forces start to make attempts to set up weapons systems, to resupply units that are within the town, the Marines have it within their rights to go in and take pre-emptive measures, i.e., strike against these units.”

Far from a passive stance, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force commander, is using the timeout to methodically thin the enemy. His superiors seem pleased.

“The people on the ground have indicated to me that they believe what they’re doing and the pace at which they’re doing it is net in the interests of their goals,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said this week.

President Bush said yesterday, “Most of Fallujah is returning to normal.”

Retired Air Force Col. Robert W. Chandler, who has authored four books on national security issues, sees the battle for Fallujah in a much bigger light.

“This could be one of the most important events that happens in the war on terror,” Col. Chandler said. “If you believe as I do the only way to win the war is to democratize the region … you can’t kill them all. If I can’t help change the face of the Middle East, then I lose the war.”

Agreeing to let the Iraqi Governing Council and Fallujah’s elders negotiate with the insurgents does carry risks.

The anticoalition forces are using the time to reposition into defensive stances. They are also turning the city’s mosques into arsenals and turrets from which to fire on Marine ground troops and aircraft.

The Marines are entitled then to strike the holy sites under the Geneva Convention. But, images of mosques full of craters make bad publicity for the Americans when the pictures are shown on Al Jazeera and other pan-Arab TV channels.

But the Marines yesterday seemed in no mood to back off a tactic of hitting the insurgents whenever they take up hostile positions — mosque or no mosque.

“Over the course of the last couple days, to include today, in those cases where the enemy has reached out and attempted, either through harassing fire against the Marine forces or they’ve attempted to reinforce their lines, the Marines have exercised that right and taken them under fire with both direct fire from their own organic weapon systems as well as utilizing both rotary-wing and fixed-wing close air support,” said Gen. Sattler.

He said there are now basically two choices: renew urban combat, during which the Marines will try to be as precise as possible so as not to hit civilians; or achieve a negotiated settlement.

“I think that if the negotiations work, they surrender their weapons and they turn themselves in to proper authorities, that’s the best solution here in Fallujah,” Gen. Sattler said. “We get the town back, we reinstate the rule of law, and we move on.”

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