In November, after three weeks of "precision" bombing, 10,000 American soldiers and 2,000 Iraqi national guards marched into Falluja. They had five goals:
First and foremost, free Falluja from the grip of the insurgents and allow its citizens to participate in the January 30 elections;
Second, kill or capture the guerrilla leadership in its "safe haven," particularly Abdul Musab al-Zarqawi, the accused mastermind of the resistance;
Third, "so damage the insurgency" that it would be reduced to "containable levels through 2005";
Fourth, teach Fallujans (and the rest of
Fifth, rebuild Falluja, now cleared of guerrillas, as a showcase for the rest of the country to admire and emulate. (As Colonel John R. Ballard, a military planner, told the New York Times "The best place to bring a model town into place is Falluja.')
Did the attack on Falluja accomplish these ambitious goals?
"Suffering the consequences"
Unfortunately, the only success in the Fallujan campaign so far has been in demonstrating "the consequences" that would accrue to cities that harbored guerrillas. Falluja was gutted. Two months after the invasion, Erik Eckholm of the New York Times described the city as "a desolate world of skeletal buildings, tank-blasted homes, weeping power lines and severed palm trees." At least a quarter of its homes were fully destroyed, and virtually all the others were severely damaged. Blown out windows, wrecked furniture, three-foot blast holes in walls, and disintegrated doors demonstrated that American troops had relentlessly applied what they jokingly called the "FISH" strategy (Fighting in Someone's House), which involved "throwing a hand grenade into each room before checking it for unfriendlies." Since (in the words of Lt. Gen. Sattler) "each and every house" was searched, very few remained livable.
The civilians who stayed during the fighting found themselves in a kill-anything-that-moves free-fire zone. When the first medical teams arrived in January they collected more than 700 unburied and rotting bodies (reputedly including those of 550 women and children) in only one-third of the city; and these obviously didn't include the dead already buried during the battle or hidden under the debris. (As Al Jazeera put it, "the smell of corpses inside charred buildings pervades the atmosphere.") If the 2,000 kills claimed by
But what of those who survived? More than 200,000 residents are estimated to have fled the battle, many without even a change of clothes, just as the Iraqi winter set in. The lucky ones crowded into the homes of friends and relatives, sometimes as many as 30 people to a small apartment. The unlucky ones created ad hoc refugee camps virtually anywhere they could squat, mostly without any facilities at all to call on. One family set up a tent in the bumper-car arena of an abandoned amusement park. (At least there was a roof.) Independent journalist Dahr Jamail reported that their daily life consisted of "searching for food, medical attention, warmth and clean water." One refugee told Jamail, "We are living like dogs and the kids do not have enough clothes." Another vividly described the lack of food in terms of the normal post-Ramadan feasting this way: "We did not feel that there is Eid after Ramadan this year because of our situation being so bad. All we have is more fasting." The American occupation forces and the Iraqi Interim Government offered no help to these "invisible" victims, certainly underscoring, whether purposely or not, the "consequences" to be visited on those who harbored guerrillas.
A senior Bush administration official had predicted to a New York Times reporter that Fallujans would respond to the onslaught by saying, "O.K. No mÃ¡s! What do we do about this? How do we work with you, Prime Minister Allawi, to try to stop this kind of warfare."
But instead of saying "No mÃ¡s," the Fallujans have evidently been infuriated, with thousands demonstrating at the gates of the city, demanding that the
And the anger extended far beyond Falluja. In Ramadi, 40 year old Abdulla Rahnan concluded, "The Americans want every city in
Were the guerrillas at least demobilized by the offensive? In mid-November, Lt. Gen. John Sattler, commander of the Marines in Falluja, affirmed the campaign's success, telling reporters that the attack had "broken the back of the insurgency.... I personally believe, across the country, this is going to make it very hard for them to operate."
He was wrong. Abdul Musab al-Zarqawi (if he was ever in Falluja) left the city long before the attack with virtually all of the other guerrilla leaders. The vast majority of the fighters evacuated with the residents, evidently leaving behind a relatively small force of guerrillas, who used classic hit-and-run tactics to inflict as much harm on the Americans as they could. While many sacrificed their lives, others escaped through tunnels and the rubble, and then returned to attack again and again. After eight weeks of this, one leader who remained taunted the occupation by conducting a cell-phone interview with Washington Post reporter Anthony Shadid from inside the city, claiming the fighting "would continue for months."
And while the Americans were tied down in Falluja, the guerrillas mounted a huge offensive throughout the Sunni areas of
In December, Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, the deputy chief of the U.S. Central command, conceded that the insurgency was "becoming more effective." In early January, the Iraqi intelligence chief announced that four predominantly Sunni provinces (including
Instead of crushing the insurgency, the attack on Falluja seems only to have increased its depth and scope, while adding to its support.
Both sides claimed the advantage in these ongoing battles. The mujaheddin, armed with satellite telephones and internet connections (and even English-language outlets like Jihad Unspun), issued press releases claiming victory after victory, under headlines like "US Pulls Back From Parts of Fallujah," The American media, in the meantime, declared that the city was quiet -- except for "occasional firefights and sniping."
The underlying reality was a classic, low-level urban guerrilla war in the rubble, with the guerrillas standing and fighting only when they thought they could inflict modest damage, and the
A sense of the ongoing fighting is reflected in a report from a refugee describing his first and only night back in the city ("Report from Falluja Refugee Camp," Free Speech Radio News,
Since the rubblized terrain that is now Falluja can probably hide guerrillas indefinitely, the fighting might only end with an American withdrawal. In the meantime, with so many front-line troops fighting in, or occupying Falluja, the American military has only been able to mount half-hearted responses to insurgent efforts elsewhere, while remaining vulnerable to IEDs planted along convoy and patrol routes, to the mortaring of bases and of the Green Zone, and to suicide attacks like the one at the army mess hall in Mosul.
The Meaningless Election?
By January, reality had made a mockery of the pre-attack Bush administration mantra that
But to say that the attack on Falluja definitively disfranchised Fallujans would be to ignore the much larger reality: that elections cannot be held in most of Sunni Iraq. It was not just that very few voters had registered in either Mosul or Anbar province; nor that the Interim Security Secretary had warned that safety concerns might preclude elections in the four majority-Sunni provinces; nor that there were few functioning voter registration centers (and those were targeted by guerrillas); nor that the whole election commission in Anbar province had resigned, claiming that it was not worth risking their lives when elections were impossible.
The most significant factor was that a large proportion -- likely a majority -- of Fallujans and other Sunnis believed the election to be a cruel charade in which they were being asked to choose which group of quislings would administer American policy. Riverbend, the pseudonymous young Sunni woman whose website has become required reading for those concerned with
"Sunni Arabs are going to boycott elections. It's not about religion or fatwas or any of that so much as the principle of holding elections while you are under occupation. People don't really sense that this is the first stepping stone to democracy, as western media is implying. Many people sense that this is just the final act of a really bad play. It's the tying of the ribbon on the 'democracy parcel' we've been handed. It's being stuck with an occupation government that has been labeled 'legitimate' through elections."
Without the Sunni vote, a new regime would be visibly unrepresentative, another nail in the coffin of a government whose existence would continue to depend on 150,000 foreign troops.
The False Promise of Reconstruction
Even before the attack, the
But the deepest tragedy lay not in the "near term," but in the near certainty that the promised reconstruction will never take place, simply because the Bush administration is unlikely ever to allocate the massive resources needed for such an undertaking. The monetary commitment cited by
The inadequacy of allocation can be judged by considering infrastructure repairs. Based on the estimated $400 million cost of repairing the less disastrously damaged Sadr City water systems in Baghdad, the repair of Falluja's sewers and treatment plants would in itself surely exhaust the entire $230 million allocation being discussed. The electrical system, which needed to be "ripped out and rebuilt from scratch," would cost at least as much as the sewers. Rejuvenating the medical system, rebuilding the schools, and clearing and rebuilding the streets, would likely claim another $100 million or more each.
And that's without even considering housing repair. The Iraqi Interim Government promised families from $2000 to $10,000 for each damaged dwelling. With 12,000 to 20,000 of the 50,000 homes in Falluja effectively demolished, this added up to yet another $200 million promise, with another $100 million needed to meet the government's promises to shop owners.
And remember that Falluja, the "city of mosques," now has had an unknown but significant number of its 100 or so mosques more or less annihilated, and well over half damaged. Christian Parenti, a knowledgeable independent reporter, estimated that just two of the mosques would require some $80 million in repairs; the full bill might therefore exceed $1 billion.
Total this up and you discover that the promised allocation for the reconstruction of Falluja is at least $2 billion less than would reasonably be needed. And, given the record of reconstruction funds released by the Americans over the last year, even the $230 million is certainly in question.
In other words, the promise of a "benevolent and functional metropolis" could be seen, at best, as a cruel hoax, vitiated only slightly by the fact that Fallujans never believed it.
"We Destroyed Everything"
If the American occupation authorities have their way, Falluja may remain a wasteland until the resistance is subdued. The promises of freedom, elections, and a benevolent metropolis were all empty ones. Even Charles Hess, in charge of reconstruction, admitted in December that "little reconstruction has been done" in either Najaf or
Many of the recently returning refugees heard or saw battles from the checkpoints and retreated without entering the city. Others viewed their damaged or destroyed homes and then left. Still others stayed one night and then chose a homeless odyssey over residence in what was left of their city.
But a few stayed, and they will try to begin the process of rebuilding. And herein lies the greatest tragedy of all. The miracle of the human spirit can (and eventually will) redeem even so desolate a wasteland. But this redemption must wait, because the presence of the U.S. military -- with its retina scans, its prohibition on all non-military vehicles inside city limits, its constant surveillance, its threats of and use of deadly force, its monopoly over all resources and, most of all, its quixotic effort to subdue the resistance -- makes even the beginning of reconstruction impossible.
Derrick Anthony, a 21 year-old Navy Corpsman surveyed the desolate Falluja landscape and commented, "It's kind of bad we destroyed everything, but at least we gave them a chance for a new start."
He was wrong. Reconstruction will only begin when the Americans leave.
Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, and on American business and government dynamics. His work on
Copyright C2004 Michael Schwartz
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]