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Marines' new strategy in Fallujah fraught with questions

CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq—Somewhere on this base packed with enough firepower to flatten nearby Fallujah, the Marines have stashed thousands of Frisbees and soccer balls.

They might seem frivolous, after weeks of the worst bloodshed since U.S. forces entered Iraq. Yet these nearly forgotten gifts for the people of Fallujah symbolize the failure of the Marines so far to achieve their mission of rebuilding the country and helping to pave the way for democracy after arriving in this area in mid-March. And the prospects for success are as uncertain as ever.

In their bid to win over the Sunni Triangle city that has violently spurned U.S. efforts for nearly a year, the Marines have had to shift strategies three times.

First they tried fruitlessly to court the Fallujans, with everything from Frisbees to tens of millions of dollars in rebuilding projects. Then they drove into the city, to the brink of bloody, house-to-house urban combat. Now they are forging alliances with the soldiers they faced when storming Iraq a year ago—the Iraqi Army of Saddam Hussein.

"It's part of the Marine mystique: thinking outside of the box, coming up with unique solutions to unique problems," said Maj. T.V. Johnson, spokesman for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

But it's a highly risky strategy that has left the traditionally self-reliant Marines at the mercy of three outside forces:

_American policy-makers, some of whom have been tepid at best to the new alliance with former enemies. The surprise development, seized upon on the eve of an all-out invasion, marks a major turnabout in U.S.-Iraq policy that has the Marines re-empowering the Iraqi military that the U.S.-led occupation outlawed almost a year ago.

_Their new, untested allies in the Iraqi Army, who senior U.S. military officers said came forward about two weeks ago as the Marines prepared to invade the city. The Marines expect the newly formed Fallujah Brigade, consisting of perhaps 1,100 soldiers, to capture or kill the insurgents who have skirmished with the Marines for more than a month.

_The insurgents, who have attacked the Marines with explosive devices and sniper and mortar fire. U.S. intelligence officers are watching warily to see if the insurgents become emboldened by the new strategy and step up their ambushes and roadside bomb attacks.

Lt. Gen. James Conway defended the strange-bedfellows arrangement this weekend as an innovation worth trying short of all-out assault. The Marines have made it clear that, if ordered, they could take the city, but it would be a short-term, blood-drenched victory at enormous costs.

By "going into a city of that size, having to do the house-to-house clearing, slashing our way down to where the fighters finally were, a lot of people would die," the general said. "Mostly, I assure you, they would be insurgents and the bad guys. But Marines would also die, and, unfortunately, some civilians would die."

In short, senior officers say, invading Fallujah would drive the Marines further from the mission they packed the Frisbees for in the first place: finding enough trustworthy Fallujans to help them undertake rebuilding and democratization projects, and move on to the occupation task of winning Iraqi "hearts and minds."

But the Marines' new strategy is fraught with questions. Commanders admit that U.S. intelligence available to them didn't provide full background checks on the generals they have made their partners, notably Maj. Gen. Jasem Mohammed Saleh, a former commander with the Republican Guard, the elite unit that has at times served as Saddam's henchmen.

"They may not be squeaky clean, but they're pretty clean," Conway said.

It was unclear even Monday whether the former Iraqi Army commanders had vetted the new Iraqi force, some of whom, Conway conceded, likely took part in attacking the Marines.

Politically, the strategy is a minefield. The Bush administration hasn't embraced it fully, in part because in the buildup to war, Iraqi troops were painted as the bogeymen of Saddam's regime.

Now a year later, the lack of intelligence may be why, after questioning from Washington, the United States swept aside Saleh as its designated Fallujah Brigade commander in favor Mohammed Latif, who presumably has been better checked out by the Pentagon. A former exile who fled Iraq during Saddam's rule, Latif reportedly returned to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion. Saleh will reportedly serve under him.

Next, the Iraqi allies have yet to be tested. Conway and other senior Marines have met them off and on for no more than two weeks and have tentatively tasked them with making the city safe enough for convoys to roll through, and rebuilding to begin.

But the attacks continue, and the insurgents have taken to the streets again—celebrating their "victory" that sent the Marines away—their heads masked, defiantly carrying rocket-propelled grenades.

Meantime, commanders say, they have pressed forward with reconstruction projects elsewhere in the province, including in Ramadi, where insurgents mortared a base Sunday, killing six American servicemen sent here for the rebuilding mission.


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.