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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 April, 2004, 06:53 GMT 07:53 UK
Analysis: The Pentagon's Iraq uncertainty

By Nick Childs
BBC Pentagon correspondent

US Marines on armoured amphibious vehicles
US commanders are reluctant to resume a full-scale assault in Falluja
It hardly looks like a ceasefire in Falluja.

And the fact that US commanders are still clinging to that notion underlines just how reluctant they are to resume a full-scale assault, with all the political and diplomatic fallout that could entail.

The problem for commanders is how long can they let the situation of regular heavy gun battles continue? When is a ceasefire no longer a ceasefire?

As long as the security situation in and around Falluja remains unresolved, the US-led coalition risks looking weak.

But a renewed assault carries the risk of heavy US and Iraqi casualties.

And all the time the clock is ticking towards the 30 June deadline for the handover to Iraqi sovereignty.

That's one reason why increasing numbers of observers and some politicians in the United States are saying the situation has to be dealt with.

Growing uncertainty

Commanders say the military option is still there. And President George W Bush says his troops will do what it takes to subdue Falluja.

But there is a sense in the corridors of the Pentagon of a new uncertainty about just how to proceed.

An Iraqi reads an anti-American statement to others in the centre of Falluja
Insurgents in Falluja vow to defeat coalition troops

Critics suggest that the US marines in the area have been too heavy-handed.

But there have been hints that some US marine commanders believe the problem was that the US Army units in the area before did not do enough to subdue the insurgents.

This included staying out of the city and, some say, handing over security to Iraqis too soon.

There may be an element of rivalry between the two services over this.

Indeed, there have also been suggestions that the more cautious approach used by British forces in southern Iraq is better.

Pentagon officials play this down, and say essentially that there's no magic formula.

Failed planning?

And, indeed, it is a more complicated picture than that.

Locator map - Falluja

Several successive US army units had responsibility for Falluja before the marines arrived, each employing different tactics, and each criticised in turn.

Falluja has been a problem for a long time, and the US military as a whole has seemed ill-equipped to handle it.

The US forces now in Iraq were meant to be better able to deal with the insurgency than those they replaced.

Some units deliberately left much of their heavy equipment at home when they deployed so that the could be more mobile, but now the Pentagon has confirmed that it is rushing in tank and other armoured reinforcements because of the increase in violence.

That looks like further ammunition for those who say the Pentagon has failed in its planning.

And, all the time, critics argue that the violence is threatening the political process, and that a military assault on Falluja is not the answer anyway.

US commanders insist they have never suggested that a military solution alone would work.

But now Falluja has become a symbol of the battle of wills between the US-led coalition and the insurgents that the Bush administrations simply cannot afford to lose.

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