THE surprise decision to pull back US forces from the besieged town of Fallaja yesterday represents a humiliating setback to US military strategy in Iraq. Even if the initial reports are qualified in detail, the fact that a withdrawal has taken place must put a very large question mark over the way in which the United States is handling the disintegrating situation in Iraq. When questions have been put to President Bush (and Prime Minister Blair) about the “peace-keeping” tactics being employed by the military in Iraq, the answer has always been that decisions are being left to the commanders on the spot. Whether this will have been true of a withdrawal from Falluja must be open to doubt.

At a press conference in New York on Wednesday, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said this about Falluja: “Violent military action by an occupying power against inhabitants of an occupied country will only make matters worse. It's definitely time now for those who prefer restraint and dialogue to make their voices heard.” Whether or not these wise words were heard and heeded in Washington and Baghdad (and London), it has been obvious for some time that even if the US forces succeeded in imposing a short-term military solution on Falluja its long-term effect would by wholly negative.

According to reports, the task of restoring peace and stability to the town will be undertaken by a newly-formed Falluja Protective Army of 1'100 Iraqi soldiers under General Salah, a former Saddam Hussein commander. They have an unenviable task. Falluja was hostile territory even in Saddam Hussein's repressive times and there is no reason to think that an Iraqi army paid for by the United States will be any more welcome there.


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