by DEXTER FILKINS
BAGHDAD, Iraq — At a recent meeting with a group of tribal sheiks, an American general spoke with evident frustration about the latest Iraqi city to fall into the hands of insurgents.
“Not one dime of American taxpayers’ money will come into your city until you help us drive out the terrorists,” Maj. Gen. John R. S. Batiste said in his base in Tikrit, tapping the table to make sure he was understood.
The sheiks nodded, smiled and withdrew, back to the city that neither they, nor the American military, any longer control.
The city under discussion was Samarra, a small metropolis north of Baghdad known for a dazzling ninth-century minaret that winds 164 feet into the air. In the heart of the area called the Sunni Triangle, Samarra is the most recent place where the American military has decided that pulling out and standing back may be the better part of valor, even if insurgents take over.
In Iraq, the list of places from which American soldiers have either withdrawn or decided to visit only rarely is growing: Falluja, where a Taliban-like regime has imposed a rigid theocracy; Ramadi, where the Sunni insurgents appear to have the run of the city; and the holy Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf to the south, where the Americans agreed last month to keep their distance from the sacred shrines of Ali and Hussein.
The calls are rising for the Americans to pull out of even more areas, notably Sadr City, the sprawling neighborhood in eastern Baghdad that is the main base for the rebel cleric Moktada al-Sadr. There, leaders of his Mahdi Army are demanding that American soldiers, except those sent in to do reconstruction work, get out.
Negotiations with rebel leaders foundered last week on precisely the issue of the freedom of American soldiers to enter the area; the Iraqi government, possibly with American backing, refused to accept the militia’s demand. Even so, the point seemed clear enough: where Iraqis once tolerated American soldiers as a source of stability in their neighborhoods, they increasingly see them as a cause of the violence. Take out the Americans, the Iraqis say, and you take out the problem. Leave us alone, and we will sort our own problems.
“All we want is for the Americans to stay out,” said Yusef al-Nasiri, a top aide to Mr. Sadr. “When the Americans come into the city, they insult our people. That’s when the people get nervous. It makes them uncomfortable.”
That certain Iraqis believe their cities and neighborhoods would be better off without American soldiers is neither new nor surprising; that is what the guerrillas’ insurgency, now in its 17th month, is all about. What is new, however, is that the Americans, in certain cases, appear to agree or have decided that the cost to prove otherwise would be too high.
The pullback began in the west, in Falluja, which the Marines surrounded and attacked in April, after the killing and mutilation of four American contract employees. The Marines moved to within sight of the city center, but called off their attack after a public outcry spurred by reports that as many as 600 Iraqis had been killed.
Since then, American plans to have a group of former Baathist officers take control have collapsed, and the city is now run by a group of Islamic fundamentalists called the “Islamic council of holy warriors.” The Americans do not go inside.
In recent months, much of the rest of the surrounding area, Anbar Province, has slipped away from American control. Insurgents roam freely in the provincial capital, Ramadi, and the Americans appear to have abandoned a permanent presence inside the city.
Even in the once-friendly Shiite areas, the Americans are giving way to local demands that they stay away. When American fighters expelled the Mahdi Army from the shrines in Karbala and Najaf, a condition for each of the peace agreements was that the Americans pull back.
There is a huge difference, of course, between the pullbacks in Falluja and Samarra and the ones in the Shiite cities. In Karbala and Najaf, the Americans cleared the way for Iraqi police officers. The struggle over Sadr City is over just that – who would take control, the Iraqi police or the Mahdi Army. The Americans, who have watched repeatedly as the Iraqi police have retreated before Mr. Sadr’s militia and as the Mahdi Army has broken its promises, clearly fear the worst.
In places like Falluja, Samarra and Ramadi, on the other hand, the Americans and the Iraqi government appear to have forfeited their influence. Residents of all three places say insurgents are in charge.
Falluja, for instance, has become a haven for insurgents and terrorists, including, the Americans believe, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian thought to be responsible for a number of car bombings that have killed hundreds of civilians. In Falluja, the insurgents are free to carry out their own brand of justice, like the public lashings of people suspected of theft and rape, and the videotaped beheading last month of Suleiman Mar’awi, one of the city’s National Guard commanders.
Most significant of all, the withdrawal from these cities calls into question the practicality of nationwide elections scheduled to take place before the end of January. At the moment, the Americans appear to be prepared to hold elections without cities like Falluja and Ramadi. But excluding the largely Sunni Arab areas from the elections would raise serious doubts about their legitimacy. Already, one of the country’s leading Sunni groups, the Sunni Clerics Association, boycotted the selection of the National Council, which serves as a de facto Parliament here.
“We think the elections will be fake,” said Abdul Salam al-Qubesi, a leading Sunni cleric and a member of the association.
There are indications that American commanders would like to reassert their control over some of these no-go zones before the January elections; in purely military terms, they have little doubt that they could. In Falluja, a Marine commander said that at the time he ordered his men to halt their offensive in April, they were just two or three days from capturing the middle of the city.
But the question now, as it was then, is at what cost, not just in American lives, but in American credibility, if Iraqi casualties begin to mount. “We could go into Samarra tomorrow if we wanted to,” said Maj. Neal O’Brien, a spokesman for the First Infantry Division. “But we want to arrive at an Iraqi solution.”
The problem facing the American leadership here is whether, in places like Falluja and Samarra, there are Iraqi solutions they cannot accept.
John F. Burns contributed reporting for this article.