WASHINGTON -- A U.S. military offensive planned in key Iraqi cities this fall could still be delayed or avoided altogether. One key factor in deciding whether to press ahead is if Baghdad and Washington settle for partial, rather than full, Iraqi participation in elections in January.
Another problem arguing against an early offensive: Fears that Iraqi forces may not be strong enough to hold cities like Fallujah and Ramadi, even if American forces manage to root out insurgents there, Pentagon officials and defense analysts say.
An offensive also carries risks -- including numerous civilian casualties and the danger of further inflaming anti-U.S. feelings -- with no assurance it would put an end to the insurgency, which even Bush administration officials concede is getting worse as Iraqi elections approach.
Despite all that, U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies may be compelled to strike hard in Fallujah and other Sunni Triangle cities where insurgents are in control, if they conclude that stability there is essential to a legitimate election, Pentagon and outside analysts say.
But it may not be too late to get the same result more peacefully, they say. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld alluded to this last week when he said the options in Iraq boil down to two choices: solve it diplomatically through negotiations or solve it with force.
"Now, how does it generally happen?" he asked. "It generally happens that you prepare to use force and be ready to use force and demonstrate that you're willing to use force, and you find that sometimes that helps with the negotiations."
Rumsfeld declined to predict which way it will go.
Repeated airstrikes in recent days on rebel strongholds in Fallujah as well as parts of Baghdad appeared to be designed to lay the groundwork for a fall offensive, and to demonstrate the will described by Rumsfeld.
Time is running short.
Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, said in Washington last week that elections must go forward in January, and President Bush has endorsed that approach. On Monday, Allawi warned that a "decisive military solution" may be coming soon, but he has also pursued talks with tribal leaders in Fallujah and other restive areas.
"Having a massive, division-size U.S. operation -- while it ultimately may be necessary -- is not the way to go" now, said Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
There is still time to avoid an all-out offensive and its attendant risks, and whether it goes forward this fall depends on several tough judgment calls, said Andrew Krepinevich, a former Pentagon analyst who heads the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
For example, must balloting in the January election of a national assembly be truly nationwide, to include Fallujah and other areas where insurgents are in partial or total control?
If so, then a U.S.-led military offensive may be required, Krepinevich said.
But that raises another tough question:
"It's not clear that the United States has the forces necessary to engage in those kinds of operations across the country," or that Iraqi forces will be sufficiently trained in time to reliably hold gains achieved in a U.S. offensive, Krepinevich said.
The United States has about 135,000 troops in Iraq, joined by about 25,000 coalition troops.
The number of Iraqi troops is harder to pinpoint. The Pentagon says there are 39,000 trained Iraqi National Guard members and about 4,800 trained Iraqi Army soldiers.
But Cordesman says there is unlikely to be a "significant" trained Iraqi force until March.
If the Iraqi interim government and the Bush administration are willing to proceed with an election that excludes voters in Fallujah and other rebel-held areas, then an all-out offensive could wait until next year.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said it would be unwise to launch an offensive if Iraqi forces are not ready to provide security afterward.
"While U.S. forces or coalition forces on their own can do just about anything we want to do, it makes a lot more sense that it be a sustained operation -- one that can be sustained by Iraqi security forces," Myers told reporters Sept. 7.
It's a vexing dilemma for the Bush administration, because the longer the military waits to quell the insurgency, the more U.S. and Iraqi lives are lost. Each month since the interim Iraqi government was given sovereignty June 28, the number of American troops killed in Iraq has increased -- from 42 in June to 54 in July, 65 in August and at least 74 so far this month.
That is the first time the U.S. death toll has risen in four consecutive months.