By John E. Mulligan
The Providence Journal
March 30, 2005
"A year ago we had an insurgency that operated with impunity inside Fallujah," said Gen. John Satler, commander of the Marine Expeditionary Force that took the insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad last November.
Now, said Satler, the insurgency is damaged and somewhat dispersed, while U.S. troops nurture a growing partnership with Iraqi security fighters. All the same, daunting political and military challenges face the fledgling Iraqi government and the U.S. force of about 150,000 that protects it, according to Satler and other top military officials at Camp Fallujah and several other military bases.
Gen. George Casey, the commander of U.S. ground troops in Iraq, said the force could be reduced to about 138,000 by the end of this year if the formation of the new government works out according to plan.
Next year, if progress continues "some fairly substantial reductions in U.S. troops could result," Casey said in an interview at Baghdad's "Water Palace," as the troops call the U.S. military headquarters in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces.
The military leaders spoke as Sen. Jack Reed and Gen. John Abezaid, the top U.S. commander of the Persian Gulf region, hop-scotched around Iraq aboard Blackhawk helicopters piloted by a unit of the Rhode Island National Guard that arrived only weeks ago.
Satler hosted Abezaid and Reed almost exactly a year after the notorious display of the charred remains of several U.S. contractors in Fallujah.
Satler held out the story of Fallujah as a source of great hope for Iraq's future and - by implication - for the prospects of reducing and eventually concluding the commitment of U.S. troops here.
The hanging of the Americans' bodies from a Fallujah bridge last year was perhaps the most ghastly sign of an occupation gone sour, less than a year after Saddam Hussein's regime - and his oversize statue - had been toppled in the streets of Baghdad.
Satler explained that the insurgency had turned Fallujah into a well-armed and fortified staging ground for its attacks.
"They'd bring their raw recruits into Fallujah, train them, give them their gear and deploy them around the country," Satler said.
Along with the image of the swinging body parts, Fallujah gave the world another image to withstand - last year's photographs of American GIs abusing detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison.
Then there was the spectacle of U.S. recruited Iraqi forces unwilling to fight the rebels - a mixture of foreign jihadists, hard-line Sunni Muslim veterans of Saddam's Ba'ath party, and a radical Shiite militia led by a rebel cleric who hid out and directed his troops from inside Fallujah. No significant Iraqi unit had proven itself in battle at that point.
A number American military leaders said the Iraqi security forces have improved greatly since that low ebb, first holding their ground in secondary roles for Marine actions in Fallujah last summer and early fall. Since then, some Iraqi units have taken on and done well in weightier military jobs.
The pivotal event in Fallujah was November's action by the Marines, who pushed out virtually all the insurgents.
Satler said that success has rippled across Iraq in several ways. Many of the insurgency's top leaders and the makers of the roadside bombs have been killed or dispersed.
On the run, he said the leaders have to avoid U.S. and Iraqi patrols and random checkpoints. Plus phone and computer communication can now uncover their positions and cost them their lives.
Satler said the battle of Fallujah provided a great psychological boost as well as paving the way for nationwide elections in January.
Since then, he said there have been limited but encouraging signs of political interest among "moderate" rank-and-file Sunnis - as distinct from the former Saddam regime leaders.
Satler said the Marines have organized town meeting-style gatherings in the war-devastated neighborhoods of Fallujah that drew on a handful of Sunnis in the early days after the election.
Now, he said, the planning sessions pack the room whenever they are held.
Reed repeatedly praised the U.S. troops and their top brass for their work on the military side of the Iraq problem. But he played his recurrent theme of worry that days of trouble lie ahead.
"The most critical phase now is the formation of a functioning Iraqi government, which is still not accomplished and is now overdue" on some key political deadlines, said Reed.
Meanwhile, said Army Gen. George Casey, "the insurgency's back is not broken." And he said the complex mixture of anti-American forces still holds the power to injure Iraq's infant government.
But he said "We have $100 million in dinars locked up here at camp ... We are using it to rebuild the housing and neighborhoods of Fallujah."