AP
April 6: A Marine helps his colleague remove his backpack after a gun battle outside Fallujah.
All Americans are aghast at what they saw happen to the four hapless contractors who were ambushed, killed, and mutilated in Fallujah last week. The Marines have moved carefully and deliberately in developing their response, although the natural emotion was to want to immediately strike back forcefully at those responsible and equally at those who celebrated what happened.

These recently-arrived Marines now fighting in Fallujah come with specialized training in fighting urban warfare while concurrently trying to deal with non-combatant civilians in or near such fighting. Their approach is the best chance we have for not totally alienating an already unhappy population. However, their training is being sorely tested in a town where it is apparent that the enemy is indeed in and among the population. How these Marines perform there may well dictate how long U.S. forces have to remain in the Sunni Triangle in the years to come.

“The fighting in and around the Sunni Triangle and elsewhere doesn’t mean our efforts in Iraq are doomed for failure.”

Aiding in their efforts, the Marines are now augmented by two battalions of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC). This is a good development in the deployment of forces against insurgents, providing an Iraqi face to what has previously been an all-Coalition effort. This tactic alone will show local Iraqis that the future does portend a role for them.

By all accounts, the ICDC forces are reasonably well trained, and it’s likely that one of their primary roles will be to accompany Marines and do the tough questioning of locals as to who was responsible for last week’s attack, and where they might be found. Moreover, they’ll press locals for details on other insurgents and related matters. Having an Iraqi confront and question other Iraqis directly will likely prove more productive than having an American ask the same questions.

Unfortunately, while Marines in Fallujah are attempting to fight a controlled battle in a potentially uncontrolled environment, new fighting is breaking out in other areas of the Sunni Triangle. Such engagements not only take a direct toll on our forces in the way of casualties, but they also force us to realign and establish new priorities, often at the expense of established ones. Through it all, the enemy will be looking for new vulnerabilities.

Adding to the problems in the Sunni Triangle, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr has now rallied thousands of disenfranchised Iraqi Shiites, many of whom are well-armed and already engaged in battle with Coalition forces. Quelling such fighting – before Al-Sadr has the chance to characterize it as an attack on all Shiites by infidels – is an absolute priority. One way to minimize such a development is to have his apprehension undertaken by fellow Iraqis, not by Americans.

The fighting in and around the Sunni Triangle and elsewhere doesn’t mean our efforts in Iraq are doomed for failure. Indeed, it is true that the majority of Iraqis support the ouster of Saddam and the prospect of democracy. The fighting does, however, illustrate the problems we face nearly a year after major hostilities ended. One way to minimize these problems is to accelerate the empowering of Iraqis in security roles they will ultimately have to take on anyway.

A retired Marine Corps officer, Bill Cowan spent three and a half years on combat assignments in Vietnam. In the 1980s, he was specially selected to serve as one of the first members and as the only Marine in the Pentagon's most classified counterterrorist unit, the Intelligence Support Activity (ISA), a unit that to date remains under the tightest security. While there, Cowan served as a senior military operations officer and field operative on covert missions to the Middle East, Europe and Latin America. He is a co-founder of the WVC3 Group, a company providing homeland security services, support and technologies to government and commercial clients.