The newly joined battle for Fallujah may accomplish little in the end, but it is an urgent piece of business. The insurgency in Iraq needs at least to be suppressed before January's national elections, and before American troops can come home.
The American and Iraqi incursion into Fallujah, which began Sunday night after weeks of preparation, is the latest and most telling indication that the war did not end with President Bush's May 2003 declaration on an aircraft carrier. And having begun the war, the United States and its allies have no choice but to take all necessary steps to win it.
As Secretary of State Colin Powell observed, the Pottery Barn rules are in effect: We break it, we own it. America cannot leave Iraq to the insurgents and the terrorists who would make it a worse place than it was under Saddam Hussein. Their gathering strength threatens the country with chaos.
Nevertheless, defeating a durable insurgency is like seizing a cloud. American troops moved into the restive city of Samarra last month, but did not rid it of insurgents. That suggests Americans may have to conduct a harsher assault on the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah, perhaps pacifying the city, but also handing their enemies enough propaganda to stoke jihadist emotions for months to come.
If the situation is not impossible, it is precarious. "You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," said retired Army Gen. William Nash, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of its Center for Preventive Action.
Yet war is not a parlor game. You cannot go into one committed to any outcome short of victory, and the Bush administration seems to be coming to the belated realization that victory in Iraq will mean using military tactics that over the short term will make few friends in the Islamic world, but which over time may help clear the way for some kind of Iraqi renewal.
That is the best outcome, and it may not happen. But the simple fact is that it cannot happen with a thriving insurgency at play. If threats of violence against Iraqi citizens were to suppress the Sunni vote in January's elections, the result would be fatally compromised. And although the current assault may end up doing just that -- Sunni clerics are already calling for an election boycott -- there is no other choice.
The continuing instability makes it more difficult to train and field a functioning Iraqi military that could eventually take over security responsibilities, allowing American troops to leave.
A cynical adage of the Vietnam War was that troops had to "destroy the village to save it." The world has to pray that Fallujah, a Buffalo-sized city of 250,000, is not on the brink of destruction, but this much is undeniably true: As the heart of a destabilizing insurgency, this city must fall. The road toward peace runs through it. The hope is that the road is not a dead end.