This assault on Fallujah risks alienating the entire population of Iraq

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Few doubt that the US forces in Iraq - aided by Britain's Black Watch regiment - have the necessary firepower to win the battle of Fallujah. But the question is, will it be worth it? A bloody assault on the town will destroy what little support that the United States still enjoys in Iraq, and send out a catastrophic message that it is unconcerned about what damage it inflicts on the Iraqi population so long as it achieves its goals.

Few doubt that the US forces in Iraq - aided by Britain's Black Watch regiment - have the necessary firepower to win the battle of Fallujah. But the question is, will it be worth it? A bloody assault on the town will destroy what little support that the United States still enjoys in Iraq, and send out a catastrophic message that it is unconcerned about what damage it inflicts on the Iraqi population so long as it achieves its goals.

As the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, argued in a letter to the US, UK and Iraqi administrations over the weekend, the use of heavy force only reinforces perceptions that the military occupation of Iraq is set to continue indefinitely. The calling of a state of emergency yesterday, to coincide with the assault, creates the impression that, for Iraq, democracy is further away than ever.

The rationale for the attack on Fallujah seems to be that, with so many rebel fighters holed up in the city, an all-out assault can effectively wipe them out at a stroke. When the rebel leaders are dead, the insurgency in the rest of the country will wither away. But this is a dangerous assumption. History has shown that it is rarely possible to destroy an insurgency in one decisive military operation. The US argument that the insurgency is being led by foreign mercenaries and a hard core of Baathist thugs is not plausible.

The massacre of 21 Iraqi policemen over the weekend and series of suicide car bombings, despite the tight security ring that has been put in place around Fallujah, shows that the insurgency has a long reach. And there is evidence that most Sunni Muslims in Iraq are now either in revolt or sympathetic to the revolt. A brutal assault on the town of Fallujah will only alienate them further. And it is not just the Sunni who will be disaffected by strong-arm American tactics. The Shia, who make up 60 per cent of Iraq's population, will not take kindly to seeing their countrymen blown to pieces by US firepower.

The argument that this attack is necessary to establish security and prepare the ground for national elections in January is not a convincing one. It is undoubtedly true that for successful elections to take place there needs to be a higher level of security than exists at present. But just as important is the need for confidence among the population towards those who will be administering the poll. This attack is certain to add to the sense of distrust directed towards the occupying forces. Mr Annan is right to argue that the problem of insecurity can only ultimately be addressed through dialogue - the process that the US administration once referred to as "winning hearts and minds". We do not hear much about that these days.

Nevertheless, elections remain Iraq's best opportunity to escape the maelstrom of death and insecurity into which it has been thrust. A legitimate government would be much more effective both in providing security and repairing the damage done to Iraq's infrastructure. It would have the authority that Iyad Allawi's American-appointed administration clearly lacks. Perhaps the greatest mistake of the whole US occupation was its failure to call elections immediately after the fall of Baghdad, when the insurgency had not yet begun and when Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful Shia cleric in Iraq, was demanding a popular vote.

Despite its professed goal of introducing democracy to Iraq, the US has consistently proved unwilling to hand over power to the Iraqi people. It likes the idea of establishing an Iraqi-led government, but only if it does what it is told. Needless to say this is not the sort of government the Iraqi people have much time for, as the widespread rejection of the interim administration has shown.

The US urgently needs to change its tactics in Iraq and adopt a more humane approach. Otherwise the country - and its occupiers - risk being plunged yet further into the abyss.

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