NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq – As fighting winds down, U.S. troops face an even more difficult mission in Fallujah (search) — winning the people's allegiance. Planners want to make sure the Fallujah battle doesn't mimic the U.S.-led invasion: a well-executed military assault followed by a flawed occupation.
As soon as the city settles down, U.S. leaders and their Iraqi government partners plan to bring in a new city government — including a new mayor and police chief — as well as thousands of Iraqi police and paramilitary forces whose job it will be to keep order.
Shortly afterward, contractors are supposed to begin $178 million in repairs to the battered city.
"We knew the combat phase was something we could easily dominate," said Lt. Col. Dan Wilson, a planner with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. "Now is when the real work begins."
No one expects the capture of the former Sunni Muslim (search) stronghold to halt the insurgency — even within the city itself. One military official said Fallujah would probably wind up like Baghdad, a city under ineffective government control where insurgents have little problem mounting attacks.
By any account, the United States and Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi (search), will have a tough time making friends among Fallujah's surviving residents.
The brutal assault has crushed homes and mosques and ground much of the southern neighborhoods into rubble. Survivors are hungry and aid convoys have been unable to reach them.
Reports of civilian suffering, expected to spread after the Americans loosens its grip on the city, could transform Fallujah into a shrine to Muslim warriors killed in the fighting.
Already the fatal shooting of a wounded and apparently unarmed man in a Fallujah mosque by a Marine has incensed Sunni Muslims, complicating efforts by Iraqi authorities seeking to contain a Sunni backlash to the invasion. Many Sunnis saw the Fallujah assault as a plot by the Americans and the Shiites against religious Sunnis and Saturday's shooting strengthened that view, intensifying the hostility there, as elsewhere, to U.S. troops.
As factual events morph into legend, the battle could become a key tool for guerrilla recruiters, already adept at running information campaigns, who want to replace the 1,600 or so fighters killed.
Fallujah remains home to many in the insurgent recruiting pool, including unemployed soldiers from of Iraq's disbanded military. And the city is a key stopping point on the guerrillas' route into Baghdad.
Outside Fallujah, the vast and tough Anbar province, which lacks any credible Iraqi security force or government control, seethes with Sunni discontent and growing poverty.
Thousands of insurgents in the province have been able to intimidate residents into halting cooperation with American and Iraqi governments, even as they step up attacks on the roads and in towns that stretch west along the Euphrates River.
U.S. planners and their Iraqi government partners want to fight back by capitalizing on the momentum from their quick ground battle.
Together, the Iraqi government and U.S. military have set aside $178 million for immediate repairs. Further out, there is $1.2 billion in long-stalled funds earmarked for Anbar province, part of the $18.4 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds that Congress approved for rebuilding Iraq.
In coming days, thousands of Iraqi troops and special police will be sent to keep order in Fallujah, with some manning roadblocks on routes into the city, said Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, commander of the 1st Marine Division and the architect of the ground assault.
"Hopefully we'll be able to control access to the city, Natonski said. "Iraqi security forces are very good at spotting foreign fighters. They can detect the accents."
But another U.S. military officer said little can be done to prevent insurgents from returning to the city. And thus far, the military has shown little evidence to back up previous claims by U.S. and Iraqi leaders that large numbers of foreigners were behind the rebellion. Most of the city's defenders appear to have come either from Fallujah or from elsewhere in Iraq.
Military officials say privately that the United States lacks the forces to take on the guerrillas as effectively as it should. Currently, the Americans have about 142,000 troops in Iraq, though some units will be rotating out next year.
U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine calls for simultaneous attacks on rebel strongholds. But current troop levels make it difficult to pursue that strategy, giving the insurgents the chance to flee and regroup.
Some U.S. officers compare the fight to the old carnival game Whack-a-Mole. As soon as one animal's head is bashed, another pops up somewhere else.
But in Anbar province, the military hopes to make good on its counterinsurgency doctrine, keeping troops in the region long enough to press the fight.
Eventually, U.S. planners say, Iraqi forces must take over. Wilson said it was critical to show Fallujah's returning residents that Iraq's interim government is serious about reviving the city.
"We don't consider this thing over. We have no plans to pack up and go home," he said. "We are going to make sure Fallujah is done right."