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    Marine Officers See Risk in Cuts in Falluja Force

    Published: November 18, 2004

    WASHINGTON, Nov. 17 - Senior Marine intelligence officers in Iraq are warning that if American troop levels in the Falluja area are significantly reduced during reconstruction there, as has been planned, insurgents in the region will rebound from their defeat. The rebels could thwart the retraining of Iraqi security forces, intimidate the local population and derail elections set for January, the officers say.

    They have further advised that despite taking heavy casualties in the weeklong battle, the insurgents will continue to grow in number, wage guerrilla attacks and try to foment unrest among Falluja's returning residents, emphasizing that expectations for improved conditions have not been met.

    The pessimistic analysis is contained in a seven-page classified report prepared by intelligence officers in the First Marine Expeditionary Force, or I MEF, last weekend as the offensive in Falluja was winding down. The assessment was distributed to senior Marine and Army officers in Iraq, where one officer called it "brutally honest."

    Marine commanders marshaled about 12,000 marines and soldiers, and roughly 2,500 Iraqi forces for the Falluja campaign, but they always expected to send thousands of American troops back to other locations in Iraq eventually, after the major fighting in Falluja. This intelligence assessment suggests that such a move would be risky.

    Some senior military officers in Iraq and Washington who have read the report have cautioned that the assessment is a subjective judgment by some Marine intelligence officers near the front lines and does not reflect the views of all intelligence officials and senior commanders in Iraq.

    "The assessment of the enemy is a worst-case assessment," Brig. Gen. John DeFreitas III of the Army, the senior military intelligence officer in Iraq, said of the Marine report in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "We have no intention of creating a vacuum and walking away from Falluja."

    The report offers a stark counterpoint to more upbeat assessments voiced by military commanders in the wake of the Falluja operation, which they say completed its goals well ahead of schedule and with fewer American and Iraqi civilian casualties than expected.

    Although the resistance crumbled in the face of the offensive, the report warns that if American forces do not remain in sufficient numbers for some time, "The enemy will be able to effectively defeat I MEF's ability to accomplish its primary objectives of developing an effective Iraqi security force and setting the conditions for successful Iraqi elections.

    The American military and Iraqi government are poised to pour humanitarian aid and conduct reconstruction efforts in the battle-scarred city, most of whose nearly 300,000 residents fled before the fighting began last week.

    "The view from the tactical level has been generally more pessimistic," said one senior Marine officer in Washington, referring to the view from the ground. "They may well be right, but I would also say that tactical intel is almost always more dour than that done at the strategic level."

    Details of the report and some of its verbatim findings were provided to The New York Times this week by four active-duty or retired military officers in Iraq and Washington who have read the report or heard descriptions of it.

    The assessment draws on intelligence gathered in the Falluja operation and 10 intelligence reports compiled in the last six months in the Marines' area of responsibility in Iraq, principally Al Anbar and Babil Provinces, officials said.

    Senior officers said the intelligence report was meant to help top Marine commanders in Iraq, including Lieut. Gen. John F. Sattler and Maj. Gen. Richard F. Natonski, and their military superiors in Baghdad, decide how many American forces to keep in the Falluja-Ramadi area when the offensive is over and reconstruction efforts are in full swing.

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