Units of the 1st Marine Expeditionary force and 7th and 121st Army Corps of Engineers finished building a security fence enclosing most of the restive Iraqi city of Fallujah on Thursday, April 15.
The barrier made up of a northern and southern berm, each 2.5 miles long, is designed to obstruct the passage of Arab and al Qaeda fighters in and out of the city and delivery of their war supplies. It also provides cover for the US siege force on the flat terrain on which the Sunni Triangle town of some 300,000 stands.
But, in the view of DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military experts, the fence also offers a tactical advantage to the besieged insurgents. Most of the Marine forces, except for the snipers on the rooftops of commandeered houses, are deployed outside the town. The wall obstructs their line of vision to the Iraqi gunmen lurking in wait for them.
In the city, the guerrilla forces are believed to be running low on ammunition, as well as food and medical supplies. Youngsters are being sent over or under the barrier at night to fetch supplies. Tunnels have been dug under the wall, one of which was apparently used last weekend by a group of fighters from Mohammed’s Army that managed to leave the encircled city and join comrades from the Ramadi area.
Three lessons can be learned from the Fallujah operation that followed the brutal murder of four US contractors:
The US siege and walling of Fallujah are not watertight; there are still ways to penetrate and depart the city.
Fighters inside Fallujah are able to stay in contact with comrades on the outside.
The United States is short of the manpower either for mounting a decisive offensive to capture Fallujah or hermitically sealing it off.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources, this insufficiency is the result of US Marines being detached for the urgent mission of making the strategic Baghdad-Amman Highway 1 safe for travel. Coalition forces need the route for their supply convoys. But as a commercial artery it is indispensable to Iraq’s economy. Kuwait’s port, despite its expansion and new equipment, is not up to handling alone the huge volume of military and civilian goods destined for Iraq.
The Americans have turned to Jordan’s Red Sea port of Aqaba to alleviate some of the pressure. But this land bridge has been stalled since the latest round of fighting erupted in early April. More than half the long convoys are stuck in or around Baghdad, prevented by ambush and gunfire from passing through the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib on their journey westward.
In the past three weeks, the volume of supplies reaching Iraq has been halved by these attacks.
An estimated 1,500 to 2,000 gunmen are harassing the traffic on Highway 1 in large gangs of dozens or hundreds. Not all of them hate Americans or love Saddam Hussein. Intelligence officials believe that at least half are simply well-organized robber bands with access to advance information on the cargoes heading out.
Captives were taken off one of the first convoys two weeks ago, three bodies of US contractors later found and a driver taken hostage. But for the most part, the “guerrillas” are putting on a show of burning trucks for the benefit of television cameras so as to trick the world into believing they are rebels fighting the occupying forces. In most cases, only one truck is torched, the rest of the convoy driven off with their loads to hiding places in the desert by the robbers. From there, the goods are diverted to black markets, mainly inside Syria.
According to our military sources, two full US military brigades are now patrolling the key highway, assisted by the same helicopters that served the 101st Airborne when that elite unit was deployed in northwestern Iraq. The infantry brigades, now airborne themselves, have been mounting search and destroy missions against the “highwaymen”. With those forces now tied up until further notice, and given the current uncertain situation in Najef, it remains to be seen how and when the US Iraq command can raise reinforcements for a decisive assault on Fallujah.