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Rumsfeld Looks to Military Success to ‘Tip’ Iraqi Opinion

Times Staff Writer

U.S. troops captured Saddam Hussein, killed his much-loathed sons and handed power over to an Iraqi interim government. But none of that succeeded in tipping Iraqi public opinion decisively in favor of the United States.

Now, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other officials say they are hoping that crushing militants in Fallouja will serve as a milestone for winning the backing of the Iraqi public and deflating the lethal insurgency.

As U.S. Marines launched the most significant offensive in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, Rumsfeld argued Monday that Iraqi public opinion was at a “tipping point” and that defeating the insurgents in Fallouja could help nudge a large majority of Iraqis into supporting the U.S.-backed interim government.

“Success in Fallouja will deal a blow to the terrorists in the country, and should move Iraq further away from a future of violence to one of freedom and opportunity for the Iraqi people,” Rumsfeld said during a Pentagon briefing.

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The assault is not without risks, some experts noted Monday, because civilian casualties could turn public opinion against the U.S. and its Iraqi allies. And success would not necessarily endure after U.S. troops left.

Fallouja is considered the Iraqi insurgency’s largest base of operations and, Rumsfeld said, eliminating it would be a military as well as a psychological defeat for the insurgents. Afterward, Iraqis are likely to turn against the insurgents and embrace the democratic process leading to parliamentary elections scheduled for January, he said.

“Over time you’ll find that the process of tipping will take place, that more and more of the Iraqis will be angry about the fact that their innocent people are being killed by the extremists,” he said. “And that they’ll want elections, and the more they see the extremists acting against that possibility of elections, I think they’ll turn on those people.”

U.S. military officials believe that Fallouja is home not only to about 3,000 native fighters, but between 500 and 800 fanatical members of Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi’s network.

A victory in Fallouja, where U.S. troops are augmented by Iraqi forces, would also be symbolic, officials say. Ever since the Marines were ordered in April to halt an offensive and stay out of Fallouja -- with control eventually passing into the hands of insurgent leaders -- Fallouja has served as a symbol of American impotence in Iraq. Residents of Iraq’s so-called Sunni Triangle wrote songs and poems about a ragtag band of freedom fighters holding off the world’s most powerful military.

Retaking the city, U.S. officials hope, would also increase the likelihood that residents of other Iraqi cities would be able to go to the polls in January.

Yet in the battle for hearts and minds, some experts Monday pointed out at least two potential dangers in the new offensive. Large-scale civilian casualties -- combined with grisly images of the fighting broadcast on Arabic-language satellite channels throughout the Middle East -- might generate additional sympathy for the insurgents and could even encourage more Iraqis to take up arms against U.S. and Iraqi troops.

“If this battle is viewed by a lot of Iraqis as an Alamo on the Euphrates, that could lead to more Falloujas popping up around Iraq,” said Andrew Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, an expert in counterinsurgency warfare.

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A second concern is that the fight might be lost in the battle’s aftermath.

Even if U.S. Marines retake Fallouja, the subsequent hand-over to Iraqi security forces might only embolden insurgents to reenter the city.

In Samarra, another Sunni Muslim-dominated city that U.S. and Iraqi forces reclaimed from insurgents in October, a recent spate of violence suggests that insurgents are back and having a relatively easy time conducting a new round of deadly attacks.

“It’s like pulling your fist out of a bucket of water, and everyone seeps back in,” Krepinevich said. “If that’s the case in Fallouja, it’s not a real tipping point, there’s just an illusion of a tipping point.”

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On Monday, Rumsfeld suggested that recent polls of Iraqis were evidence that a “tipping” of Iraqi public opinion was already taking place.

While Rumsfeld didn’t cite specifics, one poll of Iraqis conducted by the Washington-based International Republican Institute in September and October revealed that despite the continuation of terrorist violence in Iraq, 64% of Iraqis believed that their lives would improve over the next 12 months. Only 15% feared that their lives would get worse, and more than 58% believed that elections would be held as planned by Jan. 31.

Other polls reveal far less optimism. Results of a recent survey by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, a Baghdad-based research organization, showed that a majority of Iraqis had little faith that Iraqi forces could maintain security during elections. It also showed that 67% of those polled said they were “very likely” to vote in the January elections -- down from 89% in June.

Despite military victories against insurgents in Najaf and Tall Afar, as well as Samarra, U.S. commanders acknowledge that the insurgent forces in Iraq have been replenishing their ranks.

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Even after capturing and killing what commanders believe to be thousands of insurgent fighters in those cities since August, U.S. intelligence officials estimate that there may be 15,000 to 20,000 enemy fighters in Iraq -- a higher number than assessments earlier this year.

“Do these numbers ebb and flow? Yes,” a senior military official in Baghdad said. “Right now, they’re flowing a bit.”


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