Monday, April 26, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT
The latest news from the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah is that Marines will now conduct joint patrols with Iraqis, as a way to regain control of the city without a full-scale assault. Perhaps this will even work, but it's also likely our enemies will consider it a sign of weakness and ramp up their attacks there and elsewhere.
The judgment in Baghdad seems to be that the most important outcome at this moment is that the coalition be seen to regain control of that city of 200,000 in the Sunni Triangle. There's no doubt Marines could retake the city by force, but the fear is that al-Jazeera and other anti-American media would portray the campaign in the worst possible light and perhaps prompt uprisings elsewhere in Iraq. So U.S. commanders and regent L. Paul Bremer have cut this deal with Fallujah intermediaries for the joint patrols, and U.S. forces can target the insurgents at a better time and place. At least that's the argument.
We hope this doesn't represent a decision by coalition political leaders to shrink from the military campaign that is inevitable. Sooner or later the Baath remnants, jihadists and criminals who have used Fallujah as a sanctuary have to be killed. They can't be bargained with, they can't be reasoned with, because for them a peaceful transition to Iraqi control after June 30 means defeat. If the estimated 2,000 or so insurgents decide to allow Marine patrols, it will be because they have concluded it is safer to melt away to kill Americans another day rather than fight to the death in Fallujah now.
The killers facing Marines in Fallujah are those who melted away a year ago as coalition forces closed on Baghdad. Rather than fight and die then, they retreated to the Sunni heartland to regroup, rearm and organize the murder of both coalition soldiers and the Iraqis who are cooperating with us. The U.S. didn't pursue those Saddamists at the time, and it decided in later months to let Fallujah more or less alone. We now know this was a mistake, and the Marine presence is a recognition that the city can no longer be tolerated as a terror sanctuary.
If nothing else, the Fallujah sanctuary repudiates the argument we've often heard that the U.S. would have been better to "wait" to begin the war last year. If we had, Senator Carl Levin and others argue, we might have had the French on our side (sure) and the extra forces would have made the fight easier. But delay would also have given the Baathists time to organize this guerrilla-style warfare nationwide. Instead of fighting them in Fallujah and Ramadi, as Marines now will, without the elements of speed and surprise, a year ago U.S. soldiers might have had to do the same in far more cities.
By the way, it hardly helps to have United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi publicly warning the U.S. not to defeat insurgents who are killing Americans. He repeated again yesterday that "In this situation, there is no military solution," and portrayed any U.S. attack in Fallujah as unjustified. This rhetoric, amplified by al-Jazeera, will only make it more likely that any offensive in Fallujah would be misinterpreted by other Iraqis.
Mr. Brahimi is the man Mr. Bremer and National Security Council staffer Robert Blackwill have sold to President Bush as the key to a sound political transition in Iraq. But three times in the past two weeks he has made public remarks damaging to coalition progress and U.S. interests in the region.
He told French radio last Wednesday that, "There is no doubt that the great poison in the region is this Israeli policy of domination and the suffering imposed on the Palestinians, as well as the perception by the body of the population in the region, and beyond, of the injustice of this policy and the equally unjust support of the United States for this policy." U.S. "poison?" Is Condoleezza Rice paying attention?
The danger with delay in Fallujah and Mr. Brahimi's comments is that they will be interpreted by Iraqis as a sign that the U.S. is losing its resolve and simply wants out. Perhaps caution in Fallujah makes sense at this moment, but sooner or later the insurgents have to be defeated, and at the point of a gun, not by diplomacy. If we're not prepared to do that, Mr. Bush might as well order the troops home now.