There are 250,000 people living in Fallujah.

My guess is that the population is going to be reduced shortly.

Not all of the Iraqi city’s population, or even most of them, bear responsibility for the despicable, cowardly attacks on four U.S. civilians murdered, mutilated, incinerated and hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River.

But the longer that religious leaders and residents protect and shield those who carried out the attacks – and those who are against U.S. troops and Iraqis eager to build a free society – the more responsible the residents of Fallujah collectively become.

The day of reckoning is coming. It will be precise, according to U.S. military officials. And it will be overwhelming.

Fallujah is going to pay a price for the blood it has spilled.

The temptation of Americans is to be too cautious. That approach can only result in more American blood being spilled. The U.S. should give the leaders of Fallujah a chance to turn over all those who participated in the bloodletting, all those who cheered them on, all those who kicked the mutilated and charred bodies of the Americans who were there on a mission of mercy – bringing food to the forsaken city. I have no expectations that Fallujah’s elders will make the right call, do the right thing. And when they fail to do so – say, in the next few days – the U.S. should pound Fallujah like it has never been pounded before.

We should not try to gain an international consensus for this action. We should not apologize for it. We should not restrain our Air Force and our artillery batteries from wreaking devastation. We should not expose our ground troops to unnecessary risks.

In other words, we may need to flatten Fallujah. We may need to destroy it. We may need to grind it, pulverize it and salt the soil, as the Romans did with troublesome enemies.

Quite frankly, we need to make an example out of Fallujah.

Here’s a chance for justice. Here’s an opportunity to show the people of the Middle East it doesn’t pay to resort to barbarism and terrorism.

Immediately the U.S. should stop its humanitarian efforts in Fallujah. There should be no more food caravans. Instead, we should isolate the city and cut off its supplies and its power. It should be a city under siege.

Military leaders had hoped that some clerics might issue a fatwa, or religious edict, banning attacks on Americans. But no such calls have been heard. Just a block away from where the American convoy was attacked, some graffiti reads, “It is permitted to steal from Americans; it is permitted to kill Americans for vengeance.”

There were many pictures taken of happy Iraqis kicking the burned remains of those four American civilian contractors. I hope the military is keeping files. I hope the military is going to hold each of those individuals responsible for the massacre. I hope the military ensures that all of those people are dead or in custody at the conclusion of the Fallujah campaign.

It’s time to take off the velvet gloves.

It’s time to stop being Mr. Nice Guy.

It’s time to cease worrying about collateral damage.

It’s time to show all Iraqis and their brothers and sisters throughout the Middle East that it doesn’t pay to mess with Americans. They need to see there is no profit in it. They need to understand we mean business. They need to accept things will never be the same in Iraq. They need to feel the heat. They need to be provided with visible disincentives to further attacks on Americans, free Iraqis and other coalition partners.

Sometimes the most merciful course of action seems like the harshest.

Fallujah needs to feel some pain. If this operation is carried out well – and with finality – it can save many more Iraqis, Americans and others from future pain.

The war in Iraq is not over. It won’t be over until Fallujah and the rest of the Sunni triangle is fully pacified.

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