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Why We Must Take Fallouja

Mark Bowden, a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, is the author of "Black Hawk Down" (Signet, 2002) and "Road Work," just published by Grove/Atlantic.

By all accounts, the battle of Fallouja has been fierce. But it is hardly the conclusive showdown with Iraq’s insurgents that, in a simpler war or in a simpler world, it might have been.

Even if the small Iraqi city once harbored a large body of enemy fighters, including the notorious killer Abu Musab Zarqawi, there are plenty of reasons why we should no longer expect to find them there. For one thing, the slow buildup and weeks of warnings that preceded the assault eliminated any hope of surprise. And even if some measure of surprise had been achieved, the insurgents would not have stood their ground. They are not fools, and one thing this war has demonstrated is that our enemy in Iraq knows how to slip away to fight another day.

So we should not be surprised if, even after the offensive is over, the roadside bombings, kidnappings and murders continue. Does that mean that retaking Fallouja accomplishes nothing?

No. The assault was overdue. The war in Iraq has become a contest for the confidence of the Iraqi people. Before committing to one side or the other -- the insurgents or the collaborationists -- most Iraqis, like sensible people everywhere, are looking to see which side is most likely to prevail. In their case (unlike the election we just had in the U.S.) the issue is one of survival.

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Which is why retaking Fallouja is so important, as was the need to do so deliberately and with care. The advance notice gave our enemies time to flee, but it also gave civilians, especially those in that vast middle, a chance to clear out. With Iraqi elections scheduled and with slates of candidates being readied, the people of that country are being asked to participate, against violent opposition, in the creation of an independent civil society. The boldest have already chosen sides, but the vast majority of more ordinary people are still wavering. I suspect fear has more to do with influencing them than anything else -- more than nationalism, religion, kinship or ideology. If running for office, voting, applying for a job or even just showing up for work amounts to a death sentence, the insurgents win.

Closing down Fallouja is a step in the right direction. It denies the insurgents a haven, and it eliminates the perception that they are gaining ground. It works as a demonstration of will and power. It says that no matter how brutal and determined the enemy is, he will not control neighborhoods, towns or cities, and he will not prevail.

Guerrilla war is always about hearts and minds. If the foreign assassins and stubborn homegrown Saddamites are forced underground -- so they will have to run and hide and be unable to operate -- their chances of winning over that vast middle population will recede. Most people everywhere want to live in a peaceful world, one where they can work and love and nurture families, where they have at least an expectation of justice and where they have a say in larger policies or governance that touches their lives. The more convincingly an elected Iraqi government can offer that prospect, and the faster the U.S. presence can recede, the more likely it is that most Iraqis will turn against the insurgents.

After all, what do the insurgents have to offer? Not much, apart from a defiant nationalism, which the foreign military presence invites. For religious extremists, by definition a minority, they offer a vague fantasy of the perfect Islamist fundamentalist society. For Sunnis, they offer a continued unjust share of wealth and power. The best hope for this difficult war to end on acceptable terms is for elections to take place and for Iraq’s new civil society to take hold -- whatever shape it assumes. That will make it clear that ultimately these vicious insurgents are at war with their own people, not with the U.S., Britain and their allies.

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Which is why it is important to retake Fallouja, and why it was equally important for everyone to know we were coming. The target isn’t just the terrorists, it’s that vast middle ground of Iraqis. We cannot kill the insurgency, but they can. If they believe in the future we offer, they will.


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