Iraqi insurgents have extended their reach over large swaths of the country, including sections of the capital, making it unlikely that the United States can establish the stability needed for credible elections in January even if its forces succeed in Fallouja, military and political analysts say.
There is little doubt that American-led forces will recapture Fallouja within days, the analysts say. But U.S. officials who are planning for the election face another challenge: a law and order vacuum in many Sunni Muslim areas where there are no American or Iraqi forces and insurgents can operate with impunity.
Masked gunmen patrol these places, particularly at night, assassinating government officials, carrying out kidnappings and intimidating the people.
“There are large areas of countryside that are controlled 24 hours a day by the mujahedin, where people do not see U.S. forces,” said Charles Heyman, a senior defense analyst for the London-based Jane’s Defence Weekly.
With voting scheduled to take place in less than three months, there has been no let-up in insurgent attacks nor any sign that the government can curb them.
“You need to be able to replicate the density of troops now in Fallouja right across the Sunni Triangle, at least, and in Baghdad, and we don’t have enough soldiers to do that. And it’s hopeless to pretend Iraqis have the ability to do that,” Heyman said.
Pentagon officials Wednesday denied that a security vacuum had developed in some areas, stating that Iraqi security forces were growing in strength and that patrols by U.S.-led forces were conducted routinely throughout the Sunni Triangle -- the heavily populated Sunni areas of central Iraq north and west of Baghdad where guerrilla attacks have been most prevalent.
“Every day we’re gaining more control over the Sunni Triangle region, and the Fallouja operation is an example of that,” said a senior defense official who declined to be identified.
President Bush said this week that he would consider any request for additional forces, but that U.S. military leaders “have yet to say, ‘We need a substantial number of troops.’ ”
Nevertheless, insurgents continue to carry out attacks sowing widespread fear. In recent violence, insurgents have assassinated police officers and left their bodies in the road; they have hung the empty uniforms of slain Iraqi national guardsmen like scarecrows to warn off anyone thinking of joining the security forces; have set up checkpoints at which they robbed and threatened people. They have staged mortar and rocket attacks and vanished down back alleys and country roads. They are increasingly demonstrating an ability to shut down civic life even in many urban areas.
The insurgents, believed to be predominantly Sunnis, oppose the elections because they fear that the power they lost with the ouster of Saddam Hussein will be cemented by a popular vote. The battle for Fallouja has already caused leading Sunni clerics to urge a boycott of the poll and seems likely to further stiffen a broader Sunni resistance to voting.
With the majority Shiite Muslims insisting on elections -- and likely to stage mass protests if they are not held -- interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is pressing to bring the insurgency under control.
So far, the insurgents seem to be winning many fights.
Civil authority appears to have all but vanished in some areas. In Haditha and Haqlaniya, neighboring towns 135 miles west of Baghdad, people say they are afraid to walk the streets. Insurgents sent a strong warning months ago after the U.S. military put a local tribal leader in control. Militants killed him and his sons. A second group of leaders, including a police chief, was also deposed.
The current chairman of the city council, Khaled Hussein, who has the approval of the insurgents, painted a bleak picture of life in the city. He spoke about a weekend attack on two police stations in the towns, in which 22 police officers were killed. Some were handcuffed, then executed.
“Now the Iraqi police refuse to go to work. The shops are closed, the streets are empty and very few people go out,” Hussein said.
The picture is reflected in other areas.
In Mahmoudiya, a mixed Sunni and Shiite community south of Baghdad, the streets were nearly empty Wednesday even though it was a few days before Eid, one of the biggest holidays in the Muslim calendar, when people shop for new clothes and gifts.
Small crowds gathered around Internet printouts, declarations by former Iraqi police officers and national guardsmen who swore on the Koran that they had quit their jobs.
Fresh graffiti proclaimed “Oh Muslims, Go to Jihad,” “Death to Allawi and His Puppet Government,” and “Long Live Fallouja.”
At one of the few shops that had customers, the owner looked suspiciously at a visitor who asked why so few stores were open.
“The people are staying home because they are afraid of the armed men,” he said.
In southern Baghdad, the situation is similar. A mortar attack this week on a half-finished municipal building, which housed a police outpost, drove away the small force camped there. Residents say there is not even a checkpoint. At night, the only patrols are by insurgents with kaffiyehs masking their faces.
Mustafa Alani, chairman of Defense and Terrorism Studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, said that Baghdad was likely to be a chief target of the insurgency. It is the country’s nerve center, and with at least 6 million residents spread over a vast area, difficult for U.S. and Iraqi forces to stabilize.
“Baghdad is the real battlefield right now,” Alani said. “It’s the largest city, it’s impossible for the U.S. troops to control. They cannot really occupy Baghdad; they are spread too thin.”
The capital has become a prime site for one of the guerrillas’ most effective tactics: assassination. Often unrecorded in the daily violence is the frequency of attacks on low- and mid-level government workers. Allawi’s accountant and his son were shot to death two weeks ago; so was one of his secretaries. A deputy director general of the Oil Ministry was killed a week ago, along with a defense official.
Government workers are scrambling to apply for housing in the capital’s U.S.-controlled Green Zone to escape gunmen in their neighborhoods.
Experts said they expected the insurgents to melt away when U.S. troops mass forces -- such as the contingent now in Fallouja -- and reemerge when the Americans draw down their numbers.
“The insurgents have read the manual: You allow the heavily armed, well trained soldiers in; you let them set up their positions, sort themselves out; and then you close in around them,” said Heyman, of Jane’s Defence Weekly.
In Samarra, which the insurgents abandoned after intense battles with U.S. troops and Iraqi forces in early October, the guerrillas have begun to re-assert themselves. Two coordinated car bombs and several mortar attacks Saturday killed more than 30 people. This week insurgents killed a shop-owner suspected of spying for the U.S. His body, was left in the street as a warning to others.
In the north, Mosul, once trumpeted by the U.S. military as a model of stability, is now mostly controlled by insurgents. Two U.S. soldiers were killed there in mortar attacks this week. Insurgents killed four Turkish truckers Wednesday and guerrillas armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades clashed with American troops for several hours. They attacked two U.S. convoys, killing four people, a reporter on the scene said.
A U.S. military spokesman confirmed the attacks but said only that a foreign contractor was killed. Three Iraqi police officers also were killed, a hospital spokesman said. On Thursday, the city crackled with automatic weapons fire as gunfights ran for hours. There were no police or Iraqi national guardsmen on the streets, residents said.
In one neighborhood, insurgents boasted that they had killed an Iraqi national guardsman, and showed reporters the body of a lieutenant, his identification on his chest and his head riddled with bullets.
One fighter said: “This is a traitor who worked with the [Iraqi national guard], and he helped the Americans in killing his brother Iraqis!”
Another fighter, who refused to identify himself, said: “What is happening in Mosul is retaliation for our brothers in Fallouja. There is nothing that can stop us.”
Rubin reported from Baghdad and Marshall from Washington. Times staff writers Mark Mazzetti in Washington, Paul Richter in Washington, Maggie Farley at the United Nations, special correspondents Raheem Salman in Baghdad and Ahmed Izzi in Samarra contributed to this report.