The resistance in Fallujah may have been crushed, but the cost has yet to be counted

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As the cannon rang out over Whitehall, announcing the two-minute silence for Remembrance Day, there were two slightly hopeful strands of news from the battlefield that is today's Iraq. One was the report that US Marines had reopened the main bridge into Fallujah and cleared it for traffic, an achievement that should allow aid into the centre of the city and the evacuation of the injured. The other was the announcement that, after six days, the massive US and Iraqi assault on that city was nearing its end.

As the cannon rang out over Whitehall, announcing the two-minute silence for Remembrance Day, there were two slightly hopeful strands of news from the battlefield that is today's Iraq. One was the report that US Marines had reopened the main bridge into Fallujah and cleared it for traffic, an achievement that should allow aid into the centre of the city and the evacuation of the injured. The other was the announcement that, after six days, the massive US and Iraqi assault on that city was nearing its end.

Against this, however, came a welter of bad news, bespeaking thousands of tragedies, great and small. The provisional death toll was given by the Americans as 31 US and six Iraqi soldiers dead and almost 300 wounded - unofficial reports suggest many more. US forces said that some 1,200 insurgents had been killed, and several hundred captured; but there was no definition of "insurgent" and no tally for civilians killed or injured in the assault. One Western woman was reported to have been found murdered and mutilated.

An Iraqi Red Crescent convoy reached the main hospital on the outskirts of town, but was not allowed further. A US Marines spokesman said there was no need for supplies to be taken into the city or for medical help. He questioned whether there were any Iraqi civilians trapped in the city. The Iraqi interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, said from Baghdad that he had not heard of any civilian casualties. Both observations directly contradicted telephoned appeals for help for the sick and hungry coming from inside the city and the graphic accounts of wholesale destruction given by the very few reporters not subject to military censorship.

So far, we have only the most blurred and partial picture of the assault on Fallujah and its aftermath. By themselves, the raw figures of combatant casualties mean little. There is as yet simply a blank where figures for civilian casualties - "collateral damage", so-called - should be. All that can be said with any certainty is, first, that this has been an utterly unrestrained demonstration of US military force and, second, that it shows the determination of the US and Iraq's interim leaders to stamp out the resistance in the hope that this will facilitate the planned elections.

Even these two bare observations, however, exude the distinct sense that we have been here before. Was this not where we were at the very start of the war in Iraq - with the application of overwhelming military power, official dismissal of civilian casualties, official denials that there was any such thing as resistance inspired by the invasion - only terrorists, foreign fighters and Saddamists who had not yet got the message that they had lost?

And the initial effect of the assault on Fallujah was all too reminiscent of the response to earlier US attempts to crush individual concentrations of resistance. Yesterday alone, reports came in of new uprisings in Iraq's third city, Mosul, in the oil town of Baiji in the north, new acts of sabotage against oil wells, and fierce explosions after nightfall in Baghdad. The hydra of resistance has simply grown new, equally destructive, tentacles elsewhere.

As in the earlier efforts to root out the leaders of the anti-occupation forces, those specifically named and targeted by the American forces as the chief villains are said to have fled in advance of the attack. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has been held responsible for the beheading of several foreign hostages, is among those presumed to have escaped.

The best hope, and justification, for the conquest of Fallujah has been that it will encourage Iraqi acceptance of the interim government and facilitate something like plausible nationwide elections in January. At worst, though, what happened at Fallujah will foster all manner of secondary uprisings, making Iraq even less governable than it currently is. It is premature to abandon all hope, but the early indications incline far more to the worst than the best. The grim likelihood is that on Remembrance Sunday next year we will be commemorating a good many more victims of war.

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