Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

As US Shifts to a Multifront War, Risks Rise for Troops ; Pentagon Has a Delicate Task in Taking a Tougher Stance in Fallujah and Sadr City without Inflaming Wider Violence

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

As US Shifts to a Multifront War, Risks Rise for Troops ; Pentagon Has a Delicate Task in Taking a Tougher Stance in Fallujah and Sadr City without Inflaming Wider Violence

Article excerpt

As US troops fight a multifront war in Iraq - battling radical Shiite militia, insurgents in Sunni strongholds, and terrorist cells while continuing rebuilding efforts - the American military task is arguably more complex and risky than at any time since the fall of Baghdad.

With the recent spike in violence, US military operations in Iraq have reached a critical juncture, requiring a more robust, aggressive posture rather than the gradual withdrawal the Pentagon originally planned for. The shift also reflects the weakness of Iraqi police and civil defense forces, which have repeatedly given ground in the face of armed attacks in recent days.

Yet a tougher US military response, while dictated by the gruesome killings in Fallujah and uprisings in Shiite cities, also carries a Catch-22. A crackdown on core opponents, if mishandled, could inflame Iraqi opinion against the occupation. Ultimately, only a political solution is likely to end the violence. "You can't win it militarily, but you could lose it," said retired Gen. Wesley Clark on CNN. "There is no magic military strategy to keep people off the streets. You have to take the steam out of it by dealing with it politically."

Anticipating possible heightened unrest, US Central Command chief Gen. John Abizaid has asked his staff for options in moving fresh troops to Iraq's trouble spots. Already, US forces in Iraq have recently surged from 120,000 to 134,000 as the result of a massive troop rotation. While such reinforcements would first come from within Iraq, contingency plans are under way to dispatch new troops from outside the country if needed.

"Clearly if this thing got out of control over there, we would have to start looking at the number of forces that we have in theater and whether they were adequate to meet our needs," says a senior Central Command official. Currently, he says, "we have the forces necessary to do the job."

In the near term, US commanders say their challenge is not more troops, but how to muster lethal force against enemy groups with precision, preventing civilian casualties. In a delicate balancing act, for example, US troops seeking to root out the armed militants of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr must wield force as surgically as possible to prevent inflaming the Shiite community. In Fallujah, US Marines face a similar dilemma. In recent days, they have imposed a curfew and set up checkpoints to help control passage in and out of the city. Meanwhile, US Marines have killed and captured suspects in "methodical" raids, says Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Yet such precision in Iraq's densely populated urban areas - and especially in Baghdad's impoverished district of Sadr City, the radical cleric's support base - means sending US ground troops into some of the worst combat terrain and will probably result in more US casualties. …

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