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Col. Bill Cowan
Since U.S. forces crossed the border from Iraq into Kuwait last year, no engagement in Operation Iraqi Freedom has received more attention than that which Fallujah is receiving now. In Saddam’s own words, “This will be the mother of all battles.”

In fact, the world has watched and waited since April for this battle to occur, and the time is now. There is no doubt that U.S. and Iraqi forces will prevail, but there will be costs. Nonetheless, it’s a battle that has to happen. While the long wait since April has been agonizing to some, and most certainly has allowed the insurgents to better prepare the city and themselves for the fight, the wait has also given our side the time to more carefully plan, to acquire better and more reliable intelligence, and to build a more capable Iraqi force with whom to fight alongside. None of those differences is subtle.

On the planning side, we’ve had more time than in any previous battle to diligently study the streets, alleyways, and buildings over which our forces will fight. New maps and timely imagery have allowed young leaders, down to squad level, to be able to picture their slice of the battlefield, predict where and how they will move, and postulate alternative courses of action should the situation shift once underway. Those defending will live with what they have. Those of us on the offense will have the flexibility and mobility to adjust rapidly and decisively to what we encounter. Time has allowed us to develop our game plan.

On the intelligence side, our forces have access to better and more timely intelligence than at any time in our nation’s history. To be sure, we don’t really know where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is. At this moment, who cares? This battle is about the city of Fallujah and the symbolism it represents as the core of insurgent activity and defiance in Iraq. Over the past months, more and more citizens tired of the insurgents and their thuggery, and a slow but steady stream of intelligence began to emerge from residents. Much of that intelligence helped form the basis for the frequent precision guided airstrikes against selected targets in the city, some was held back for use in the ongoing engagement. That information, melded with what we’re receiving from overhead observation, signals intercept, and the daring actions of reconnaissance and surveillance operations, collectively gives us a better picture of what we’re about to encounter and to plan for it accordingly.

On the new Iraqi forces side, Secretary Rumsfeld’s press conference following the commencement of the attack against Fallujah alluded to the fact that U.S. forces were there “supporting” the Iraqi forces. While it may not quite be the case, the fact is that there is now a core of Iraqi forces who are properly trained, equipped, and up to the task at hand. Although they received scant press coverage, some of these forces did well in Najaf, did better in Samarrah, and now can be counted on to do well in Fallujah. Anyone who has worked at building effective foreign fighters knows there are no quick fixes. It’s not just the training and equipping. More importantly, it’s the leadership and then some experience under fire. Both of those come with time, not in training encampments, and none of us should expect miracles when it comes to fielding a first-rate Iraqi military or police force. Newer Iraqi units being faced with their first taste of battle are indeed encountering some desertions. So too did President Lincoln’s army during our own Civil War. The battle of Fallujah will result in some core, battle-tested units in the Iraqi Army around which to continue to build. The Iraqis in those units will become legendary in years to come as democracy takes hold and flourishes in Iraq.

Finally, in acknowledging the intense media attention and scrutiny on the battle for Fallujah, it’s important to remember the loved ones of those fighting there. For the Marines, sailors, soldiers, and airmen engaged in the battle, their focus surely remains on the task at hand. It’s a 24/7 environment, with precious little time to stop and reflect. In contrast, families and loved ones at home only have snippets from the news against which to gauge what those whom they love and miss are experiencing. In many respects, their burdens are more cumbersome than those experienced in combat. Our hearts, thoughts, and prayers should go out equally to the families, much as they do to the exceptional men and women carrying on the battle.

Col. Bill Cowan is a military analyst for FOX News Channel. A retired Marine Corps officer, Cowan spent three-and-a-half years on combat assignments in Vietnam.