WITH U.S. FORCES NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq—The expected showdown between insurgents holding Fallujah and American forces massing on the city's outskirts will be a watershed event for interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and the U.S. presence that backs him.
It's far from certain whether the battle will bolster Allawi and his Cabinet or drag them and their country further into bloodshed.
If Fallujah falls quickly, Allawi would look more powerful, selling his administration as one that acts decisively. A quick victory also might be a strategic and psychological setback for fighters whose regular attacks have halted American plans for reconstruction.
But a protracted battle, with massive civilian casualties from street-by-street fighting, could rile the nation and the Arab world, not only costing Allawi popularity among Iraqis but also risking a regional revolt.
"What happens in Fallujah will spread out across other Sunni cities, including Baghdad," said Salman al-Jumaili, a political science professor at Baghdad University who has been privy to the ongoing Fallujah peace negotiations. Al-Jumaili said he thought the Fallujah offensive would spin out of control, with fighting hopscotching from one town to the next.
As was the case during fighting against Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia in Najaf during August, Allawi's administration is arguing that fighters in Fallujah are enemies of the state, or, in the vocabulary of the American military, "Anti Iraqi Forces."
To that end, Iraqi police and national guardsmen will be used as prominently as possible. When the fighting is over, U.S. financial aid for reconstruction projects will pour in by the millions, publicized by a flurry of news releases.
"We can go in there and take care of the bad guys; we're confident of that," said 1st Lt. Nathan Braden, a spokesman for the U.S. Marines in Fallujah. "What we're concerned about is the aftermath."
While the Marines were successful in keeping the al-Sadr violence from exploding into national unrest, doing so in Fallujah could be far more difficult.
When the Marines pulled out of Fallujah after fighting in April—reportedly at the behest of a White House concerned about the political liability of more civilian casualties—the town became a cause celebre.
"I hate to call it the insurgency capital, but yeah, it's where they have been able to make a stand with the Marines," said a high-ranking U.S. military official in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "And the fact that we retreated ... it became a rallying point."
"They have vowed to make it the Alamo," the official said.
Fallujah is in the middle of a swath of land known as the Sunni Triangle for its majority Sunni Muslim population. In contrast to the Shiites in southern Iraq, who stand to profit more from stability than upheaval because of their gains in the interim Iraqi government, the political outlook for Sunnis is grim.
Even if they gain a foothold as a minority party in the government, they'd face being marginalized by Iraq's Shiite majority. That's a particularly difficult scenario to accept for Sunnis in the region near Fallujah, where many enjoyed influence and wealth under the regime of Saddam Hussein, a fellow Sunni.
Unlike Najaf, where many of the fighters were shipped down from an al-Sadr stronghold in Baghdad, Fallujah is filled with fighters from the area whom many consider heroes.
"Fallujah was the first town that was, as they say here, liberated from the Americans," said Maki al-Nazzai, a local leader who has been involved this year in peace negotiations with U.S. military representatives.
Standing in an intersection in Fallujah recently, a fighter dressed in black held his AK-47 and gave a quick answer about the difficulties that U.S. and Iraqi security forces will face.
"The Iraqi government should know that Fallujah is not Najaf. ... Fallujah is where the fight started," he said, identifying himself as Abu Abdullah. "If they want to finish this fight, they will have to finish it in Fallujah. But they won't be able to."
(An Iraqi special correspondent in Fallujah contributed to this article. His name was withheld for security reasons.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Allawi