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November 11, 2004 -- IN the Second Battle of Fallujah, military operations are ahead of schedule. Our casualties have been blessedly light. The terrorists who haven't fled are being killed by the hundreds. Our troops will soon achieve their goal of eliminating Iraq's key safe haven for terrorists.

Our Marines and soldiers have carried the ball inside the 10-yard line. The media's response? Move the goalposts.

The legions of pundits ("Will talk for food") now suggest that a win in Fallujah will be meaningless because we failed to kill or capture the terrorist leadership, because some of the thugs ran away and because Fallujah won't resemble Darien, Conn., by next Sunday.

On Tuesday, as our troops handily pierced the defenses terrorists had spent months erecting, The New York Times carried two front-page stories implying that our forces were facing possible defeat. The Times' military analysis was incompetent and just plain wrong. And the photo its editors ran above the fold showed a Marine curled in a ditch under enemy fire.

It wasn't reporting. It was a mix of anti-American propa- ganda and wishful thinking. Al-Jazeera couldn't have done it better.

Now that our troops are winning so lopsidedly that it can't be denied, the Times likely will tell us that Fallujah didn't matter, anyway, that our efforts were wasted. Then Seymour Hersh, the New Yorker's greatest living fiction writer, will follow up with a fairy tale called "Failure In Fallujah."

What's really happening?

We're winning a critical victory. Since the political decision to stop short in Fallujah last April, the terrorists had bragged to the world that the city would never fall to the infidel. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his thugs turned Fallujah into a vast dungeon, complete with torture chambers and execution halls. The terrorists stockpiled weapons and ammunition, welcoming thousands of international "Jihadis" and using the city as a base to spread terror across central Iraq.

Fallujah became the new world capital of terror. And Allah's butchers proclaimed that they'd slaughter U.S. troops in the streets, if they tried to enter the city.

Guess who's dying now?

By fleeing without fighting to the death as they promised they would, the terror-masters discredited themselves. After Coalition leaders lost their nerve last April, the terrorists portrayed themselves as having faced down America's military might. This time, they ran away, leaving untrained recruits to take the bullet-train to paradise.

The swift fall of Fallujah is not only a practical disaster for the terrorists, but a massive loss of face for them throughout the Muslim world.

Plenty of tough street-fighting remains, but three-quarters of the city is under the control of Coalition and Iraqi forces. Contrary to smug media predictions, the Iraqi units didn't run away. They did their part to free the city and save their country.

What have we found in Fallujah? Hostage slaughterhouses — butcher shops for human cattle. Stockpiles of ammunition and explosives in mosques. And a city scarred by all the marks of an Islamic reign of terror.

Talking heads may smirk and say that we'll still have to fight the terrorists elsewhere. True enough. But no one claimed that Fallujah would be the last battle. Of course, the terrorists who ran away will try to refurbish their image with more bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and beheadings.

But they've lost their greatest stronghold. They've lost their sole tangible symbol of success. And they've lost their image as dauntless warriors able to stand up to the U.S. military.

In this imperfect world, where results are never what amateurs demand, the Second Battle of Fallujah is already a huge win for the good guys — even before the shooting's over.

In the coming weeks, the terrorists will try to re-infiltrate the city. They'll stage photogenic car bombings and assassinations. Then we'll be told that we still don't control Fallujah, that we've failed. But a city where terrorists have to sneak in to plant a bomb is a far better place than one in which they rule.

Meanwhile, our troops and their Iraqi allies remain engaged in brutal street-fighting. The remarkably low friendly casualty list is bound to grow. But no one need doubt the outcome. Our troops will complete the mission they were given.

But the media need to stop inventing missions of their own, then blaming our troops for not accomplishing them. Ralph Peters is the author of "Beyond Baghdad: Postmodern War and Peace."


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