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The US army ceded control of much of western Iraq during the Sunni uprising last April. Its failure to recover fully from this setback underlines the extent to which the US as a military power has proved itself much weaker than the rest of the world had assumed before the invasion of Iraq last year.
There is no doubt that the US can recapture Fallujah, if only by blowing most of it up. But this is unlikely to have much of an effect on the guerrilla war in central and northern Iraq which continues to escalate. It is still unclear how far the rebels will stand and fight against the massed firepower of the marines and the US air force. They know they are far more effective in launching pin-prick attacks with roadside bombs and suicide bombers.
The recapture of Fallujah is likely to be as disappointing in terms of ending the resistance as was the capture of Saddam Hussein last December or the hand-over of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government at the end of June. Each event was billed as a success which would tip the balance towards the US. Instead the fighting got bloodier and more widespread.
There should be no mystery about why this is happening. All countries object to being occupied. Foreign invasions provoke nationalist resistance. This has happened with extraordinary speed in Iraq because of the ineptitude of the US civil and military commanders, but in the long term it would have happened anyway.
It is worth remembering that the elections are taking place largely because of armed resistance. Until guerrilla war started in the summer of last year US officials in Baghdad were speaking airily of an American occupation going on for years. It was only as the military situation deteriorated by the week that the US suddenly decided to appoint an interim government and hold elections. Many Iraqis say quietly that the only way to get concessions from the Americans is to shoot at them.
The French failed to hold Algeria against a nationalist revolt despite fielding an army of half a million. With similar numbers the US failed in Vietnam. With a much smaller army in Iraq, it will fail again. As in Algeria and Vietnam, the war in Iraq will only cease when an end to the occupation is in sight.