BAGHDAD, Iraq – The recapture of Fallujah (search) has not broken the insurgents' will to fight and may not pay the big dividend U.S. planners had hoped — to improve security enough to hold national elections in Sunni Muslim (search) areas of central Iraq, according to U.S. and Iraqi assessments.
Instead, the battle for control of the Sunni city 40 miles west of Baghdad (search) has sharpened divisions among Iraq's major ethnic and religious groups, fueled anti-American sentiment and stoked the 18-month-old Sunni insurgency.
Those grim assessments, expressed privately by some U.S. military officials and by some private experts on Iraq, raise doubts as to whether the January election will produce a government with sufficient legitimacy, especially in the eyes of the country's powerful Sunni Muslim minority.
Even before the battle for Fallujah began Nov. 8, U.S. planners understood that capturing the city, where U.S. troops are still fighting pockets of resistance, was only the first step in building enough security to allow the election to take place in the volatile Sunni areas north and west of Baghdad.
The next steps include solidifying Iraqi government control, repairing the substantial battle damage and winning the trust of the people of Fallujah.
That requires, among other things, an effective Iraqi police and security force.
Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, said during a visit to Iraq this week that the Fallujah offensive was a major blow to the insurgents, and he said the only way the U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies can be defeated is if they lose their will.
"But we are also under no illusions. We know that the enemy will continue to fight," he told the Pentagon's internal news service.
Speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill, Lt. Gen. Lance L. Smith said the military now had to keep the insurgency from regrouping.
"The issue for us at Central Command is make sure we keep the pressure on the terrorists and not allow another safe haven to occur, and we're going to do that," Smith said.
The Associated Press has learned that U.S. military officials in Iraq concluded the population of Anbar province, which includes Fallujah, Ramadi, has been intimidated by the guerrillas and that the provincial security forces are nonfunctioning and their ranks infiltrated by guerrilla sympathizers.
Before the attack on Fallujah began last week, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi formally dissolved the city's police and security forces, which had fallen under control of the radical Sunni clerics who ran the city.
Calls have already emerged for the January vote to be postponed until security improves. Militant Sunni Arab clerics have called for a boycott to protest the Fallujah attack.
However, Iraq's electoral commission is having none of that.
"The election will take place on schedule under laws which cannot be changed because there is no legislative authority to do so," commission spokesman Farid Ayar said Wednesday.
The clerical leadership of the majority Shiite community is also deeply opposed to any delay in the election. The country's premier Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has been demanding elections since the early months of the U.S. military occupation.
"I don't understand how delaying elections will improve the security situation," Hussain al-Shahristani, a Shiite scientist who is close to al-Sistani. "I believe that the most important reason for the deteriorating security situation in the country is the postponement of elections."
However, pressure for a postponement is likely to increase if the wave of car bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and armed attacks cannot be curbed as the ballot approaches.
Since the Fallujah offensive, there has already been a marked spike in insurgent attacks across other Sunni areas, notably Mosul where about 1,200 U.S. troops launched an operation this week to reclaim police stations abandoned after insurgent raids. U.S. officials say only 20 percent of the city's 5,000 police had returned to duty as of Wednesday.
"Holding the elections has become more difficult after the military operations in Fallujah and other places," said Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman, a former member of the Iraqi Governing Council. "It is not impossible to hold the election, but will it be credible, free and clean?"
Despite the risks, holding the January vote on schedule is important for several reasons. It would produce a representative government to replace Allawi's U.S.-backed administration — seen by many Iraqis as an unwanted legacy of the American occupation.
Voters will choose a 275-member legislature that will draft a permanent constitution. The document will resolve such key issues as whether Iraq adopts a federal system — a major demand of the country's large Kurdish minority — or remains a centralized state favored by the Arab majority.
Failure to resolve the issue satisfactorily to all could result in civil strife or even the breakup of the Iraqi state. The Shiite Arab majority expects the vote to formalize its domination over Iraq after decades of oppression by the Sunni Arabs. The Kurds, about 15-20 percent of the population, want to preserve their system of self-rule in their northern homeland.
"I will cast my vote even if I have to crawl to the polling station," said Malik Nouri, 34, a Shiite who owns a pastry business in Baghdad. "I will go even if bombs go off in front of my house."
Many Sunni Arabs, however, fear the vote will strip away the prestige and power they had enjoyed for centuries. Many Sunnis accuse their Shiite and Kurdish rivals of acquiescing the American occupation for political gains.
Despite boycott calls, many secular-minded Sunnis are expected to vote in the election. But a low voter turnout, especially in Sunni strongholds now plagued by insurgency, would be worse than having no election at all, according to Peter Khalil, a national security research fellow at the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution.
"You need at least 70 percent of the voters to take place to accord legitimacy to the next government. If not, it will fuel the insurgency and give it a new political dimension," said Khalil, who served for nearly a year with the U.S.-led occupation authorities in Iraq.