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Iraq: In Rebel Cities, Establishing Civilian Control May Prove As Tough As Military Victories

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says large-scale military operations are needed to regain control of rebel-held parts of Iraq. Rumsfeld referred to the Sunni city of Samarra -- recently retaken by coalition and Iraqi forces in a major offensive -- as the example to be followed. However, establishing effective civilian control over such areas may prove as difficult and challenging as any military victory. If such control is not established, elections will be cast in doubt. And if large numbers of Sunni Muslims cannot vote, there is a risk they will become further alienated after January's scheduled polls.

Prague, 5 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. and Iraqi forces say they have succeeded in their drive to re-establish government control over the Sunni Triangle city of Samarra.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking to a New York-based think tank yesterday, said other such military offensives are likely to follow in an effort to wrest control of key cities away from militants.

But analysts warn that any such victories may only be temporary and that military means alone cannot crush the Iraqi resistance.

Yahia Said is a researcher specializing in Iraq and other transition nations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He tells RFE/RL that the United States and the Iraqi interim government must seek the cooperation of local residents to ensure any military victories are irreversible: "In the long term, you need a certain level of consensus from the population -- cooperation by the population -- to control the city, and this is not happening."

Though the city may have been retaken, residents and hospital officials in Samarra say many civilians, including women and children, were killed or injured in the fighting. Said notes that relying solely on military operations may only serve to antagonize the population before elections.

He says the Iraqi government also needs to find ways to win the hearts and minds of the population: "I think a big part of [the problem] is a feeling among many people -- especially in certain areas -- that they have been disfranchised, that they have been shut out of the political process, that the people in the government in Baghdad are mostly exiles and do not represent them."

Toby Dodge monitors developments in Iraq at Queen Mary College at the University of London. In an interview with the BBC, he said establishing effective civilian control of such Iraqi trouble spots will be the government's most challenging task. He said the U.S. military may be able to occupy towns and cities, but that there needs to be civilian institutions in place to run them.

Dodge says Samarra will likely be the least difficult of the Sunni cities north of Baghdad to get back under government control because it has a history of opposition to Saddam Hussein. Dodge says Samarra could be called "an easy first stage" in the whole operation.

Saad al-Hassani, a political analyst at Baghdad University, says the interim government has little choice but to ask U.S. troops to help weed out the insurgents. Al-Hassani says no government can permit areas of a country to remain outside its control.

However, al-Hassani says that after rebel-controlled territories fall under government control, local residents should be encouraged to participate in new power structures: "The second possibility is to encourage people, the people of Samarra, to have their own rule, among the people of Samarra themselves."

He says the peace needed to conduct successful elections in January will come only if people living in the rebellious towns take power into their own hands and see an advantage in cooperating with the government in Baghdad.

In an article in "The New York Times," Thomas X. Hammes, a fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies of the National Defense University in Washington, says that "insurgencies are first and foremost political struggles, not military ones."

The only way to defeat them, he says, is to gain the widespread support of the people. "Military action can only support the political effort," says Hammes.

Meanwhile, Rumsfeld's comments would suggest that similar military offensives are likely to come in Al-Fallujah, the heart of Sunni militancy, as well as Baquba and the Baghdad district of Al-Sadr City.

Rumsfeld said Monday that a "series of safe havens" for insurgents will not be allowed in Iraq.

His comments came on a day of widespread violence in the country. At least 26 Iraqis were killed and some 100 wounded yesterday in a series of car bomb attacks in the capital and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, U.S. war planes bombed suspected insurgent positions in Al-Sadr City overnight. Heavy fighting between U.S. troops and insurgents was also reported in the area, a known stronghold of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

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