BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — An uptick in airstrikes and other
military moves point to an imminent showdown between U.S. forces
and Sunni Muslim insurgents west of Baghdad — a decisive
battle that could determine whether the campaign to bring democracy
and stability to Iraq can succeed.

American officials have not confirmed a major assault is near
against the insurgent bastions of Fallujah and neighboring Ramadi.
But Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has warned Fallujah leaders
that force will be used if they do not hand over extremists,
including terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

A similar escalation in U.S. military actions and Iraqi
government warnings occurred before a major offensive in Najaf
forced militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to
give up that holy city in late August. And U.S. and Iraqi troops
retook Samarra from insurgents early this month.

Now U.S. airstrikes on purported al-Zarqawi positions in three
neighborhoods of eastern and northern Fallujah, 40 miles west of
Baghdad, have increased. And residents reported this week that
Marines appeared to be reinforcing forward positions near key areas
of the city. Other military units are on the move, including 800
British soldiers headed north to the U.S.-controlled zone.

The goal of an attack would be to restore government control in
time for national elections by the end of January. However, an
all-out assault on the scale of April’s siege of Fallujah
would carry enormous risk — both political and military
— for the Americans and their Iraqi allies.

A series of policy mistakes by the U.S. military and the Bush
administration have transformed Fallujah from a shabby, dusty
backwater known regionally for mosques and tasty kebabs into a
symbol of Arab pride and defiance of the United States throughout
the Islamic world.

A videotape obtained yesterday by Associated Press Television
News featured a warning by masked gunmen that if Fallujah is
subjected to an all-out assault, they will strike “with
weapons and military tactics” that the Americans and their
allies “have not experienced before.”

Regardless of whether the threat was an empty boast, insurgents
elsewhere in Iraq could be expected to step up attacks to try to
relieve pressure on fighters in the Fallujah and Ramadi areas.

But the main problem an assault would pose for both the U.S.
military and Allawi’s government is political, such as a
widespread public backlash. A nationwide association of Sunni
clerics also has threatened to urge a boycott of the January
elections if U.S. forces storm Fallujah.

So Iraqi officials appear anxious to convince the public that
they have made every effort to solve the Fallujah crisis
peacefully. The government spin is that the people of Fallujah are
held as virtual hostages of armed foreign terrorists. Although
Fallujah leaders insist there are no more than a few foreign
fighters in the city, Arab journalists who have visited say they
heard non-Iraqi accents at some checkpoints.

U.S. and Iraqi officials hope the Iraqi people are so fed up
with suicide attacks, assassinations and kidnappings — many
of them believed orchestrated from Fallujah and Ramadi — that
they will acquiesce to the use of force.

“There are terror groups in this city who are taking human
shields,” Iraq’s deputy prime minister for national
security, Barham Saleh, said yesterday, referring to Fallujah.
“We are working hard to rid the people of Fallujah of them
and to let security and stability prevail across Iraq.”

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