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[infowar.de] NYT 24.04.04 Mit InfoOps nach Falluja?
Decision on Possible Attack on Iraqi Town Seems Near
By DAVID E. SANGER and THOM SHANKER
ASHINGTON, April 24 ? Facing one of the grimmest choices of the Iraq
war, President Bush and his senior national security and military
advisers are expected to decide this weekend whether to order an
invasion of Falluja, even if a battle there runs the risk of uprisings
in the city and perhaps elsewhere around Iraq.
After declaring on Friday evening in Florida that "America will never be
run out of Iraq by a bunch of thugs and killers," Mr. Bush flew to Camp
David for the weekend, where administration officials said he planned
consultations in a videoconference with the military commanders who are
keeping the city under siege.
In a wave of heavy violence across Iraq, at least 14 Iraqis were killed
Saturday in an attack on a crowded market in Baghdad, and 14 more Iraqis
were killed by a bomb as they traveled in a bus south of the capital.
Seven American soldiers were killed Saturday in two attacks. Later, in
Basra, two American soldiers died when suicide bombers attempted
water-borne raids on the nation's main oil terminal.
As Mr. Bush discusses strategy for Falluja, administration and senior
military officials portray his choices as dismal.
"It's clear you can't leave a few thousand insurgents there to terrorize
the city and shoot at us," one senior official involved in the
discussions said in an interview on Saturday. "The question now is
whether there is a way to go in with the most minimal casualties
possible." Intense fighting stands the chance of intensifying resistance
to the coalition, both in Sunni and Shiite centers.
No decision to begin military action has been made yet.
The chief of the American occupation authority, L. Paul Bremer III,
visited Falluja on Saturday with Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the senior
commander in Iraq, to consult with frontline commanders.
They appeared to be making a last-ditch effort for a negotiated
But in Washington, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has expressed
strong doubts that the Falluja political and business figures the
Americans are talking to hold any sway over the insurgents.
On Saturday, as a blinding sandstorm swept across a sprawling former
Iraqi Army base near Falluja, Marine commanders were getting assignments
for potential targets, studying maps and planning lines of attack for a
battle that they expect could come in the next few days. The Marines
have encircled the city, awaiting Mr. Bush's decision.
But the city, a sandy mix of wide boulevards and back alleys along the
Euphrates River west of Baghdad, poses what military officials say is an
immensely complicated and dangerous urban combat terrain.
While administration officials say they would like to carry out a
precise attack on an estimated 2,000 hard-core Sunni Muslim insurgents,
military officials say there is no way guided missiles or pinpoint
bombing can do this job.
Instead, the military is planning swift raids by Marine riflemen ?
backed by helicopters and gunships ? aimed at the insurgents' leaders
and their gunmen, while encouraging others in the city to evacuate or
stay under cover.
For Mr. Bush, struggling through the most casualty-ridden month in Iraq
since the war began 13 months ago, the kind of operation now being
contemplated is hardly the sort of painful choice his administration
anticipated nearly a year after he declared the end of major combat
operations in Iraq and the defeat of Saddam Hussein's government.
The president and his advisers, said officials familiar with the
deliberations, are keenly aware that if the operation to root out the
insurgents kills many civilians ? or simply appears to when reports are
broadcast on Arab networks ? it could spark uprisings elsewhere around
Iraq, from Baghdad even to some Shiite strongholds where tolerance of
the American occupation has worn thin.
In Washington, officials still describe the fear of uprisings in Iraq as
a theory, one they say may be overblown. But it clearly has Mr. Bush and
his advisers deeply concerned. They have only 10 weeks to form an
interim government, and it will be May, officials say, before the United
Nations envoy charged to put together such a government, Lakhdar
Brahimi, returns to Iraq.
Mr. Brahimi's efforts, officials concede, could be far more difficult if
Falluja goes badly.
It was this growing concern, officials say, that led Mr. Bremer, who is
to leave Iraq in 10 weeks after handing sovereignty over to Iraqis, to
warn on Friday that "Iraq faces a choice."
His message was that the country could miss its best chance to establish
a democratic government, and he used a starkly grimmer tone than his
usual upbeat message about life returning to normal.
Mr. Bush is described by many officials as convinced that if the
insurgents hold off American forces there, they will try to do the same
in other Iraqi cities.
"The stakes are too high for us to leave," he said on Friday evening at
a campaign event in Florida. "This is an historic moment. You see, a
free society will be a peaceful society. A free society in the heart of
the Middle East will begin to change the world for the better. No,
they're trying to shake our will, but America will never be run out of
Iraq by a bunch of thugs and killers."
During the past week, as a fragile and often violated cease-fire was
declared around Falluja, American civilian and military leaders in Iraq
and Washington sought to find a mix of patience and resolve to end the
insurgency in the Sunni stronghold.
The chief Iraqi intermediary with the coalition forces has been Hajim
al-Hassani, of the Iraqi Islamic Party. This mainly Sunni group has a
place on the Iraqi Governing Council, but its position has been
challenged by the events in Falluja.
Its credibility has been undermined because it could not prevent the
Americans from fighting in Falluja and it has been accused of
collaboration with the occupation authorities. Helping to avert an
attack could restore some of its prestige.
Another person involved in the talks is the mayor of Falluja, Mahmoud
Ibrahim. But it is unclear how much power he wields. Marine officers who
have dealt with him say he is roundly disliked by many of the residents.
He had been the mayor for several years under Saddam Hussein's rule. The
political situation has been somewhat murky, with rival city councils
appointed by American civilian and military officials, and it is unclear
how Mr. Ibrahim remained mayor.
In any event, he told Marine officers earlier this week that he had no
control over three sections of the city ? Jolan, Hayal Askeri and
Shuhada ? which make up about half its area.
On the outskirts today, hundreds of people were still trying to get back
to their homes despite the threat of imminent attack, but soldiers and
marines at the checkpoints turned them back and allowed no one in.
Hundreds of other people were fleeing the city. The rule was that only
families were being allowed out. At several points, young, military-age
men were seen grabbing protesting children by the hand to make their way
out past the checkpoints.
The American military surrounding Falluja ? and, indeed, all across Iraq
? took quiet and nearly invisible steps to prepare for an attack that
increasingly seemed inevitable to commanders.
United States marines prepared for attack even as they were under orders
to return fire only if threatened; Marine commanders said they had
little doubt insurgents were likewise using the pause to dig in for
All across Iraq, American and allied forces were repositioning and
preparing for bombings, mortar attacks, ambushes and even popular
uprisings in case an attack on Falluja prompted violence elsewhere,
according to Pentagon and military officials.
Senior American commanders in the Middle East, in a parallel to
officials in Washington, seemed to be exceedingly concerned about
possible casualties in Falluja ? and how the operation to quell the
insurgency would be played throughout the Arab world, as well.
And so military and civilian officials in Iraq began an "information
operation," according to senior officials in Washington, to prepare the
battlefield of public opinion.
On Friday, the senior Marine Corps general with troops at Falluja made
clear that the clock was ticking on a settlement in Falluja short of
The officer, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, said insurgents had "days, not
weeks" to surrender their weapons or face attack.
Behind the scenes, senior American officials reached out to members of
the Iraqi Governing Council, some of whom had publicly criticized the
initial combat missions to pacify Falluja after violence flared two
weeks ago. The goal of the talks, Pentagon and military officials said,
was to guarantee the Iraqis' support for an offensive to quell the
insurgency in Falluja should all other attempts to pacify the town fail.
A final information campaign also was being prepared, senior officials
said. Just before an allied offensive into Falluja, messages would be
broadcast into the town urging all noncombatants to leave the city and
seek refuge in designated areas where food, water, medicine and shelter
would be provided by the American military.
John Kifner contributed reporting from Falluja, Iraq, for this article.
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