The recapture of Fallujah has not broken the insurgents' will to fight and may not pay the big dividend US planners had hoped -- to improve security enough to hold national elections in Sunni Muslim areas of central Iraq, according to US and Iraqi assessments.
Instead, the battle for control of the Sunni city 64km west of Baghdad has sharpened divisions among Iraq's major ethnic and religious groups, fueled anti-American sentiment and stoked the 18-month-old Sunni insurgency.
Those grim assessments, expressed privately by some US military officials and by some private experts on Iraq, raise doubts as to whether the January election will produce a government with sufficient legitimacy, especially in the eyes of the country's powerful Sunni Muslim minority.
Even before the battle for Fallujah began Nov. 8, US planners understood that capturing the city, where US troops are still fighting pockets of resistance, was only the first step in building enough security to allow the election to take place in the volatile Sunni areas north and west of Baghdad.
The next steps include solidifying Iraqi government control, repairing the substantial battle damage and winning the trust of the people of Fallujah.
That requires, among other things, an effective Iraqi police and security force.
General John Abizaid, the commander of all US forces in the Middle East, said during a visit to Iraq this week that the Fallujah offensive was a major blow to the insurgents, and he said the only way the US forces and their Iraqi allies can be defeated is if they lose their will.
"But we are also under no illusions. We know that the enemy will continue to fight," he told the Pentagon's internal news service.
Speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill, Lieutenant General Lance Smith said the military now had to keep the insurgency from regrouping.
"The issue for us at Central Command is make sure we keep the pressure on the terrorists and not allow another safe haven to occur, and we're going to do that," Smith said.
The Associated Press has learned that US military officials in Iraq concluded the population of Anbar province, which includes Fallujah, Ramadi, has been intimidated by the guerrillas and that the provincial security forces are nonfunctioning and their ranks infiltrated by guerrilla sympathizers.
Before the attack on Fallujah began last week, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi formally dissolved the city's police and security forces, which had fallen under control of the radical Sunni clerics who ran the city.
Calls have already emerged for the January vote to be postponed until security improves. Militant Sunni Arab clerics have called for a boycott to protest the Fallujah attack.
However, Iraq's electoral commission is having none of that.
"The election will take place on schedule under laws which cannot be changed because there is no legislative authority to do so," commission spokesman Farid Ayar said Wednesday.
The clerical leadership of the majority Shiite community is also deeply opposed to any delay in the election. The country's premier Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has been demanding elections since the early months of the US military occupation.
"I don't understand how delaying elections will improve the security situation," Hussain al-Shahristani, a Shiite scientist who is close to al-Sistani. "I believe that the most important reason for the deteriorating security situation in the country is the postponement of elections."