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The April Uprising in Falluja
I n late April, the U.S. ended its effort to forcibly reconquer Falluja and brought to an end the April uprising there. For almost a month, perhaps 2,000 insurgents had fought an often pitched battle with about 4,500 U.S. troops over who would control the streets of the city of 300,000.
According to the Coalition leadership, this was the end of one chapter in the ongoing pacification of the most obstreperous of the Iraqi cities; and the beginning of a new effort to root out what U.S. commanders had variously labeled as the hoodlums, thugs, Saddamists, and imported terrorists who—according to Coalition authorities—had made the city a haven for terror against Iraqi civilians, Coalition forces, and civilian contractors attempting to rebuild the country.
The Coalition command vehemently denied that this was a defeat for its troops or its policy. When Colonel John Coleman, in command of the Marines in Falluja, was asked by New York Times reporter John Kifner what he would tell his unhappily retreating troops, he replied, “I would tell these marines they have been replaced by another element of their force.” It was, in short “a transition of forces” (Kifner and Wong, NYT , 5/1/04).
But this is not how the people of Falluja—or even the Falluja Brigade—interpreted the withdrawal. Reuters reporter Fadel Badran, arriving as the Marines began packing, reported hearing the victory cry, “God has given this town victory over the Americans” announced across the rooftops from loud speakers from the mosque’s minaret. “This victory came by the acts of the brave Mujahideen of Falluja who vanquished the American troops” (5/1/04). Kifner and Wong of the New York Times displayed a picture of celebrating Falluja residents, while the new commander of the Brigade asserted that his force’s mission was providing “security and stability in Falluja without the need for the American Army, which the people of Falluja reject.”
The depth of this feeling was made plain the following week when U.S. troops decided to enter the city once again. According to Kifner, what began as a “show of strength” was “revised, scaled down, postponed, and, apparently nearly abandoned” before it took shape as a short ride down the shut-down main thoroughfare, lined with Fallu- ja Brigade troops, while a few residents “stared glumly” at the convoy which “did not venture into the tough neighborhoods where the Americans had fought the insurgents” ( NYT, 5/11/04).
Then, after the convoy and its embedded Times reporter retreated once again to the outskirts of the city, independent journalist Jahr Jamail reported for The New Standard, “Spontaneous celebrations erupted as crowds of residents gathered in the street and began chanting and waving banners. Members of both the Iraqi Police and Iraqi Civil Defense Corps joined in the celebration, waving their guns in the air and flashing the two-fingered ‘Victory’ sign” (www.newstandard news.net). The general understanding was that this would be the last they saw of the U.S. troops; and in the month afterward, no U.S. patrol entered the city.
Despite denials of Coalition generals, the U.S. had suffered a definitive defeat in Falluja. But the texture and meaning of this defeat can only be understood by looking at the whole history of the confrontation.
The Coalition Abandons the Cities
T he story really begins in Summer 2003 with the first great failure of the U.S. occupation: the failure of the occupying army to protect Iraqi citizens. Peter Galbraith summarized the national picture when he described events in Baghdad: “When the United States entered Baghdad on April 9 last year, it found a city largely undamaged by a carefully executed military campaign. However, in the two months following the US takeover, unchecked looting effectively gutted every important public institution in the city with the notable exception of the Oil Ministry” ( New York Review of Books, 5/13/04).
All over Iraq, local citizens took matters into their own hands. Kurds had well organized armies developed during their long period of quasi-autonomy and they immediately became more-or-less effective police forces, thus precluding the looting that took place elsewhere. In the South and in Baghdad, Shia clerics either activated or created militia to handle local law enforcement, and the Sunni tribal elders sought to do the same thing. For a while, the U.S. tolerated these efforts because they succeeded in restoring a semblance of order and therefore de-escalated the embarrassment over the wholesale looting and lawlessness.
Tod Robberson of the Miami Herald (4/13/04) described how this fateful cooperation developed: “U.S. military commanders compounded their current problems with decisions they made in the early days after Mr. Hussein’s regime collapsed. Looting and arson were rampant, and U.S. forces were too thinly stretched to control the chaos. Shiite religious leaders approached U.S. commanders with an offer: Permit our guards to carry weapons, and they will provide security on the streets. Military officers agreed, and a tacit alliance was formed. Within days, hospitals, fuel stations and outlying districts came under the control of Shiite gunmen who politely nodded to U.S. troops on patrol but who declared allegiance only to their religious leaders.…
“In the Shuala district of western Baghdad, Sayyed Bashir al-Musawwi, a leading cleric and close ally of Muqtada Sadr, began organizing a local militia force with U.S. approval in April 2003, when it became apparent that the small garrison of U.S. troops in Shuala would be inadequate for security. Shuala was one of the flashpoints in Baghdad this week when the Shiite uprising began.”
This policy began to fray almost immediately because of a variety of unanticipated problems. The most important was the surprising persistence of the insurgents, who were supposed to be the dying embers of Saddam’s regime, but who instead mounted increasingly effective ambushes against Coalition troops. Another was the failure of U.S. teenage soldiers as police in a country where they did not speak the language; their often violent encounters with armed and unarmed Iraqis became a new source of friction. Still another was the growing realization among Coalition leaders that the militias were becoming the backbone of a competitive government in the South. If left untouched they would soon confer sovereignty on the clerics and tribal leaders who sponsored them. Yet another was the realization that the insurgents were rooted in the cities—notably Falluja—and that they were often indistinguishable from the local militias.
The confluence of these processes led, in Fall 2003, to three key changes in Coalition policy. First, they undertook a hasty Iraqification policy, with the partially trained police and the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC) forces taking over security in the cities almost immediately while the Coalition forces withdrew.
Second, all private militias were told to disarm and cede their urban responsibilities to the police and the ICDC. This policy, however, was unevenly enforced in a particularly transparent way. The Kurdish militias, who represented pretty much the entire occupation force in the North, were left alone. The militias loyal to members of the Iraqi Governing Council, notably those loyal to Ahmad Chalabi (the Defense Department’s favorite who would later be accused of spying for Iran), were also exempt. The real targets were the militias associated with the most militant, fundamentalist, and anti-U.S. tendencies in the country, particularly Mahdi’s army, which had been organized by Muqtada al-Sadr—who would later lead the Shia insurrection in April—and some of the Sunni militias associated with local religious and tribal leaders, notably those in Falluja. Without exception, the local militias successfully evaded the new policy.
Third, the U.S. forces withdrew from the cities and set up shop in larger bases outside of town. As long as things were quiet, they did not intrude on city life. They shifted many units to the borders, guarding against what the U.S. leadership thought was their greatest military danger: the migration into Iraq of Muslim militants associated with the Islamist groups Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah. They also sought to suppress the ongoing guerilla attacks, which were increasingly focused on the highways connecting the cities. But most of their energy was devoted to counterattacking whenever insurgents engaged them—pursuing them into the villages near the site of the attack. The absence of the Coalition from the cities, in addition to the highway strategies of the insurgents, conspired to protect the cities from the sort of onslaught that many small towns experienced.
Social Order Without Coalition Troops
W hat emerged from this new status quo was a benign neglect of Iraqi cities in terms of social control, but a malign neglect in the social and economic realms.
The CPA was much too busy with national issues to worry about governing local communities or responding to problems there. The police and ICDC were technically in charge, but they had little inclination to upset the rhythm of daily life. Since most were drawn from these communities, they already were integrated into the local culture and supported the authority of local tribal and religious leaders. They had no interest in replicating the violence of either Saddamist policy or the bumbling U.S. occupiers.
It is not surprising that many insurgents and militia members became police (the recruitment process could not possibly prevent this) and that some police joined the militias and/or the insurgents. Where there was friction, it was mediated by joint commitment to keeping the peace. They had no real reason to fight each other and all concerned had a strong aversion to giving U.S. troops any reason or pretext for entering the cities.
The key political force in the Shia areas was the clerics. This was not only expressed in the centrality of the mosques in civil society, but also in the flourishing Sharia—the Islamic courts that took the place of the non-existent civil courts and adjudicated all manner of issues, from family disputes to murder. Peter Galbraith in the New York Review of Books (5/13/04) summarized the situation in early 2004: “In most of the south, Shiite religious leaders already exercise actual power, having established a degree of security, taken over education, and helped to provide municipal services.” In the Sunni areas, David Patel, writing in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Arab Reform Bulletin (May 2004), describes the clergy as overtly sympathetic to the insurgents: “Abdul Salam Al Kubaisi’s Council of Muslim Clergy plays a similar role in shaping Sunni Arab public opinion. Established after the fall of Baghdad, the Council coordinates sermons and political messages through Sunni mosques…. Influential members preach about the legitimacy of armed resistance against occupation and of targeting Iraqi collaborators.”
Because this benign neglect eliminated frictional interaction between Coalition troops and Iraqi city dwellers, it removed one major source of anti-U.S. sentiment. It did not, however, remove the other—ultimately primary—source of irritation: a highly visible economic and social disaster. Iraqi cities, like all cities, are not self-sustaining and they need to import raw materials and consumption items and export the products that provide local livelihoods. The continued and amplified flow of these resources was sorely needed to dig out from the war, the sanctions, and the years of Saddamist rule. But during Fall 2003, despite the public pronouncements that the economy was reviving, the lived experience on the ground was one of corruption, stagnation, and decline. Christian Parenti, writing for Alternet on April 12, 2004, offered a typical report: “One U.S. journalist found that many reconstruction projects that had allegedly been ‘rebuilt’ had, in reality, barely been touched. One ‘repaired’ school was overflowing with raw sewage. When I visited Ramadi and Fallujah in January, people in both towns were angry about chronic water and electricity shortages. Power plants, telephone exchanges and sewage systems all remain looted and bombed out. According to the NGO CorpWatch, only 10 percent of Halliburton’s initial $2.2 billion in contracts has been spent on meeting community needs.”
Perhaps the worst story had to do with the hospitals, overloaded and underfunded during the war, and then offered virtually no help for the first year after the invasion. The entire medical staff of Iraq shuddered in late March, when Bremer withdrew the senior U.S. advisers from Iraq’s health ministry and announced that Iraqis now had full authority over its operation. A couple of days later, Tommy Thompson, the U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, added insult to injury when he declared that Iraqi hospitals would be fine if the staff “just washed their hands and cleaned the crap off the walls” (a comment that all Iraqis heard on Al Aribiya and Al Jazeera, which no U.S. citizens heard unless they read it in Naomi Klein’s April 9 article in the Nation ).
The economy was, at best, at a very depressed standstill, and in many places it registered visible degeneration. The imports generated by Coalition spending and by the removal of all tariff protection of local businesses (the notorious and apparently illegal Article 39) did not augment the number of available products. Instead they largely replaced domestic commerce, resulting in the shutdown of numerous local shops and businesses, thus creating the plausible and possibly accurate impression that the already destroyed economy was declining still further. Klein reported that Hamid Jassim Khamis was fed up with the occupation, though he had been both an enthusiastic supporter of the U.S. invasion and one of the most prosperous beneficiaries of the occupation as the new manager of the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company in Baghdad: “‘All the trouble in Iraq is because of Bremer,’ Khamis told me, flanked by a line-up of 30 Pepsi and 7-Up bottles. ‘He didn’t listen to Iraqis. He doesn’t know anything about Iraq. He destroyed the country and tried to rebuild it again, and now we are in chaos.’
“His list of grievances against the occupation is long: corruption in the awarding of reconstruction contracts; failure to stop the looting; failure to secure Iraq’s borders—both from foreign terrorists and from unregulated foreign imports; Iraqi companies, still suffering from the sanctions and the looting, have been unable to compete. Most of all, Khamis is worried about how these policies have fed the country’s unemployment crisis, creating far too many desperate people.”
Taken as a whole, the Iraqis related to the situation between Summer 2003 and April 2004 in terms of the texture of their daily life, not in terms of a comparison with Saddam’s society. Their daily life was constantly degraded by the visible failures of the occupation. The sewage in the hall of the school was three times an injury: the discomfort that the sewage caused, the theft of precious money by the profiteer who got paid for a fraudulent clean-up job, and unemployment of the local contractor who could have done the job right for one-fourth the price. When a hospital failed to treat an accident victim, it was three times an injury: the agony of the victim, the failure to deliver the supplies needed to treat the victim, and the insult of saying “wash your hands and clean the crap off the walls.” So it went, through the daily blackouts of electricity, the boiling of contaminated water, the closing of local stores, and so forth.
A USA Today poll completed at the beginning of April, offered numerical evidence of this daily disruption. In March, more than half of all city residents had endured electrical outages, fully a third had been forced to purify contaminated drinking water, a quarter had been deprived of needed medicine, and a fifth had gone hungry.
Insurgents Become Unmanageable
E ven the U.S. military leadership realized that ongoing misery was the cause of the continued insurrection. A Fall 2003 intelligence report obtained by Seymour Hersh, and reported in his New Yorker series on torture, concluded, “Politically, the U.S. has failed to date. Insurgencies can be fixed or ameliorated by dealing with what caused them in the first place. The disaster that is the reconstruction of Iraq has been the key cause of the insurgency” (5/24/04).
The roiling discontent did not convert the majority of Iraqis into guerrilla fighters or even guerrilla sympathizers. But in Falluja and elsewhere, it did allow the guerrillas to become an integral part of the community and to continue to escalate their battle with Coalition troops.
The vast majority of Iraqis embraced the traditional posture of moderates everywhere: they “agreed with the insurgents’ goals, but not their tactics.” That is, they wanted the Coalition gone, but they did not support armed force as the way of accomplishing it. This fact was amply demonstrated by a USA Today poll in April. Among Sunnis and Shia (excluding Kurds), fully 80 percent wanted the Coalition troops to leave “immediately [in the next three or four months],” but only 13 percent “completely supported” the insurgent attacks against the Coalition troops.
Even this shaded support for the insurgency represented an intractable problem for the Coalition. Fewer than one-fifth were unsym- pathetic to the insurgents. In Falluja this translated into the ability of insurgents—locally known as the muja- heddin (or muj)—to meet and plan attacks against Coalition forces, execute the attacks, and then return to their daily routine. The local residents, despite their uneasiness about armed conflict, would not betray the identity of people who were primarily their friends and neighbors—and only secondarily hotheads or extremists. The local police and ICDC were integrated into the conspiracy of silence: most were uninterested in taking the risks involved in confronting the insurgents, and a significant minority were active supporters.
The sense of camaraderie that integrated the muja- heddin into the community also influenced their strategy against the Coalition. They became more careful to avoid activity that would endanger their neighbors. Whereas in Summer and Fall 2003, there were many reports of guerrilla attacks (not suicide attacks) in areas crowded with Iraqi civilians, as time went on they located their attacks far enough away—mainly on the highways outside of town—partly to insure that the counterattacks would not endanger the community. The muj also had the good taste to make themselves scarce during occasional moments when the Coalition troops appeared inside the city limits.
A key part of the Coalition strategy had been the expectation that unsympathetic residents of the cities would tell local police who the guerrillas were. Since a guerrilla is known to many local people and each hides separately, 100 guerillas may imply the involvement of 3,000 or 4,000 people. Guerillas would soon be captured if even a few people in their home neighborhoods were willing to turn them in. A few such betrayals could lead to huge victories for the occupation army, since coercive interrogation methods often induced a single guerrilla to identify the rest of his or her unit.
But this strategy was undermined by the growing hostility toward the Coalition. The same U.S. intelligence report that identified the horrors of reconstruction as the source of the problem also complained about the almost total lack of useable information in pursuing the guerrillas: “Human intelligence is poor or lacking…due to the dearth of competence and expertise…” and because the police and ICDC “are rife with sympathy for the insurgents.”
The growing and increasingly unmanageable insurgency centered around Falluja became the key motivating force for establishing the system of coercive detention that would later become a major embarrassment for the Coalition. As Seymour Hersh reported, the abuses were a direct consequence of this failure: “The solution, endorsed by Rumsfeld and carried out by [Undersecretary of Defense] Stephen Cambone, was to get tough with those Iraqis in the Army prison system who were suspected of being insurgents....
“‘They weren’t getting anything substantive from the detainees in Iraq,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘No names. Nothing that they could hang their hat on. Cambone says, “I’ve got to crack this thing and I’m tired of working through the normal chain of command. I’ve got this apparatus set up—the black special-access program—and I’m going in hot.” So he pulls the switch, and the electricity begins flowing last summer. And it’s working. We’re getting a picture of the insurgency in Iraq and the intelligence is flowing into the white [non-secret] world’” ( New Yorker , 5/24/04).
But whatever success accrued to the new strategy of coercive detention, it also inflamed the guerrilla war. Long before the scandals about torture and humiliation hit the U.S. press, the detention system became a new focus of Iraqi outrage, fueled by the arrests of thousands of civilians whose family and neighbors knew were not guerrillas; by the armed and violent entry into the homes of peaceful citizens; and by the constant protests of the relatives outside of the various prisons. As word of the torture seeped into local communities, this new locus of protest became yet another source of sympathy and support for the guerrillas.
By early Spring, the Coalition had had enough. The number of new recruits to the movement far outnumbered the number killed or detained; the increasing sophistication of armaments and strategy resulted in escalating casualties among the Coalition forces; and travel on intercity roads was becoming problematic.
Once again the Coalition changed its strategy. U.S. military personnel would return to Falluja to root out the insurgents. The new strategy was initiated in late March. The first patrol met with sharp resistance and killed 18 Iraqis, including at least a few civilians. It generated massive outrage in Falluja, since it constituted the first breach of the peace in the city in several months and signaled the probability of ongoing and escalating battles.
The guerrillas retaliated with the now infamous attack on four U.S. consultants. This may or may not have been preplanned, but it certainly was well organized. Once the consultants’ car entered Falluja and headed to an area that U.S. forces did not frequent, the locals cleared the streets and made sure that no civilians entered. One shopkeeper on his way to work found a black-robed stranger in front of his car. When he stopped, the stranger told him to turn around, that “something is going to happen.” He did so and only returned after the consultants were intercepted by local police and murdered. The celebrations and mutilations that followed put an exclamation point on what was already a noteworthy event: a public statement by the insurgents in Falluja that they would defend their turf against Coalition incursion.
The Attack on Falluja
T he sudden explosion of fighting in Falluja is generally portrayed as a response to the attack on the consultants and the mutilation and gruesome display of the their bodies. But the history just reviewed makes it clear that the battle had begun with the first U.S. patrol and that the furious fighting that ensued was already inevitable, since both sides were committed to the confrontation.
Nor was the battle plan of the Coalition a new departure in the war. It was, instead, standard operating policy for attacking urban areas; a policy that had already been enacted several times in smaller towns in Fall 2003.
Because Israeli confrontations with the Palestinians are such a negative precedent, it is surprising that the U.S. methodology would rely so heavily on Israeli strategy; but this reliance also helps explain the brutality of the Falluja operation. According to Seymour Hersh, during Fall 2003, “Israeli commandos and intelligence units [were] working closely with U.S. counterparts…to help them prepare for operations in Iraq.” New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins quoted Brigadier General Michael A. Vane thusly: “We recently traveled to Israel to glean lessons learned from their counterterrorist operations in urban areas” (12/7/03).
One basic principle of urban warfare, familiar to those who follow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was described to Filkins by a U.S. commander: “the new strategy must punish not only the guerrillas, but also make clear to ordinary Iraqis the cost of not cooperating.” Two examples—both applied to the village of Abu Hishma—illustrate this strategy.
In Abu Hishma, when a series of guerrilla actions against U.S. troops culminated in a grenade attack that killed Staff Sergeant Dale Panchot, the U.S. “dropped a 500-pound bomb on the house that had been used to attack them. The U.S. troops arrested 10 sheiks, the mayor, the police chief and most of the city council. ‘We really hammered the place,’ Major Darron Wright said” ( NYT , 12/7/03). The pattern was clear: punish the families and neighbors of guerrillas until they decide to reveal their identity and location.
The second strategy applied in Abu Hishma involved cutting the village off from the outside world and then systematically searching for guerrillas and their sympathizers: “Two and a half weeks later [after the 500 pound bomb], the town of Abu Hishma is enclosed in a barbed-wire fence that stretches for five miles. Men ages 18 to 65 have been ordered to get identification cards. There is only one way into the town and one way out. ‘This fence is here for your protection,’ reads the sign posted in front of the barbed-wire fence. ‘Do not approach or try to cross, or you will be shot’.”
The main purpose of this tactic was to prevent guerrillas from moving in and out of town, either to set up an ambush or flee from Coalition troops searching for them. But its secondary purpose was to punish the village, since the encirclement was complemented by curfews and other actions that made daily life virtually impossible. Filkins reported that few residents could get to work and back, given the combination of checkpoints and curfews; that many could not even go to Mosque; and that all normal life had been disrupted.
The strategy, familiar to all students of unpopular invasions, was designed to trap the guerrillas through check- points and searches or, failing that, to convince civilians to identify the insurgents rather than continue to suffer themselves. “Colonel Sassaman [the commander in Abu Hishma] said he would maintain the wire enclosure until the villagers turned over the six men who killed Sergeant Panchot, though he acknowledged they may have slipped far away.” The unspoken underlying verity was that there were no residents of Abu Hishma (or Falluja) who would voluntarily turn them over.
The ugly assumption that animated this strategy was best captured by one of the soldiers responsible for enacting it. Capt. Todd Brown, a company commander in Abu Hishma, told Filkins, “You have to understand the Arab mind.... The only thing they understand is force—force, pride, and saving face.”
The Abu Hishma strategy was applied in Falluja on a grand scale. One day after the ambush of the security workers, the U.S. Marines surrounded the city of Falluja, this time using 4,500 troops instead of barbed wire. This effort was facilitated by closing the bridge over the Tigris River, which skirted the south side of the city. (This action effectively cut off residents from the only full service hospital, located on the south side of the Tigris Bridge. During the entire siege, the hospital was unable to treat victims of the fighting and the doctors eventually left and set up temporary clinics on the other side of the river.)
The Coalition then began its effort to root out the mujaheddin. The invasion of the city started with the destruction of the electrical power plants and other public services, and proceeded with attacks on three neighborhoods that the Coalition believed were particularly saturated with insurgents.
The resistance they encountered was magnitudes greater than anything they had experienced in the smaller towns. The insurgents, after six months of continuous organizing and countless small ambushes, were well armed and well trained and they had all the advantages of local guerrillas against an invading army. They were already dug into their hiding places; they were well camouflaged within various buildings; and they knew the passages from one structure to another. They could easily stash their weapons in one place, then move to another as a civilian, and pick up guns arms that were cached in the new location.
The U.S. troops brought the full strength of their technological superiority to bear: armored vehicles that could blast holes in any cover used by the guerrillas, the awesome automatic salvos of helicopters and C-130 gunships that could shoot through the walls of any structure, and—when the return fire was not silenced by these weapons—air strikes featuring 500 pound bombs that annihilated whole buildings in a few seconds, leaving only debris in their wake.
Yet the progress was slow for the Coalition while the progression of outrage was rapid. The attack had apparently accomplished what most experts thought was impossible: a nascent unity among Shia and Sunni that expressed itself in the mobilization of civil society in support of Falluja, including the collection and delivery of food, medical supplies, and donated blood. Perhaps most significant, the supporters of Muqtada Al Sadr organized their own insurrection, taking over police stations in Sadr City, Najaf, and Karbala. There was the distinct sense that the country as a whole was about to explode.
After only a few days, the Coalition discontinued its advance into Falluja and paused to consider whether to continue the battle or seek some other resolution to the confrontation.
This declared cease-fire did not, however, end the fighting. Instead, it initiated a second—almost as brutal—phase of the war, as each side jockeyed for position to assure its advantage if the Coalition advance was renewed. On the Coalition side, this meant aggressive tactics to prevent the insurgents from further entrenching themselves or replenishing their supplies. As Major General John Sattler, the director of operations, United States Central Command, explained to New York Times reporter Edward Wong (4/29/04), “Although this is a cease-fire, they’re not purely defensive rules of engagement…. If in fact the insurgent forces start to make attempts to set up weapons systems, to resupply units that are within the town, the marines have it within their rights to go in and take pre-emptive measures, i.e., strike against these units.”
of the U.S. onslaught during this period reflected the rules of
engagement set down to guarantee their ability to pursue the reconquest
of Falluja. The list below was compiled from reports by
reporters Jeffrey Gettleman, John Burns, and Ian Fisher
(April 14, 15, 17, and 18, 2004).
- Snipers were placed on the top of all buildings controlled by the Coalition, giving a clear line of sight for the sharpshooters stationed there. Anyone approaching Coalition positions could be shot.
- Since insurgents can attack with greater success at night, there was a strict curfew imposed as soon as night fell. Anyone out after curfew could be shot, and “the troops were expected to shoot any male of military age on the streets after dark, armed or not.”
- Coalition soldiers were expected “to shoot anyone with a gun,” whether or not they were shooting at them.
- If there was hostile fire, troops were to return fire, then call in helicopter and C-130 gunships to annihilate enemy positions. Anyone inside the structures was considered an enemy combatant.
- If the gunships failed to silence the insurgents, the troops could then call in air strikes with missiles and planes carrying the definitive 500 pound bombs that destroy everything in the vicinity. According to Lt. Col. B. P. McCoy (commander of the 800 member Fourth Battalion, Third Marines who were doing the fighting in Falluja), the air strikes were only used as a last resort for two reasons. One was because civilian casualties would have been very high; the other was because “we don’t want to rubblize the city. That will give the enemy more places to hide.”
- No one was allowed to enter or leave town without undergoing careful inspection at an exit check point. No men were allowed to leave town at all, because they could be disguised insurgents.
- No civilians were allowed on the newly closed main highways outside of town. The U.S. military warning read: “If civilians drive on the closed sections of the highways, they may be engaged with deadly force.”
In Falluja, it was extremely dangerous to go outside with a gun, and almost as dangerous to go outside without one. Men were targets virtually all the time, and women and children were targets if they set foot in the wrong part of town, or if they went out after curfew. If they stayed inside, they were also in danger, since any gunshot from their building (or those nearby) could mean immediate retaliation by Marines or—much worse—by helicopter gunships, which could shoot through walls at everything that moved inside the building.
Estimates of at least 700 killed, many thousands wounded, and tens of thousands rendered homeless seem moderate in light of these tactics. Eyewitnesses, who risked death and injury to see the damage first hand (not the embedded U.S. media reporters, who were barred from being eyewitnesses to the results of U.S. attacks), soon reported nauseating stories: two football fields filled with new graves (because the cemeteries were outside the ring of Coalition troops); women and children shot in the head and neck by Marine snipers (because they were out after curfew or were thought to be men or armed); EMT drivers shot in the chest through their ambulance windows (because they were out at night or might be transporting guns or insurgents instead of wounded); city blocks annihilated (because they housed insurgents who could not be silenced by Marines); gravely wounded patients removed from hospitals for interrogation (because they might be insurgents with timely information about others); the main hospital rendered useless (because the access bridge was closed to prevent the escape of insurgents), etc., etc.
Many people chose to leave Falluja, but those who made it to the town boundaries discovered that no men (teenage or older) were allowed to leave (because they might be insurgents). This meant that many whole families returned home (or to temporary shelter), rather than be split up, while others took the drastic step of leaving men and boys behind, exposed to the fighting. Those that escaped the city could not use the main roads to Baghdad (which were closed to prevent guerrilla attacks on Coalition supplies), and many spent long hot days in the desert between the two cities.
What is perhaps most amazing about this policy is that the leaders of the occupation keep insisting that in Falluja—and everywhere else—the U.S. was rescuing the vast majority of pro-Coalition citizens from a tiny and tyrannical band of insurgents (see, for example, Rumsfeld on the “News Hour,” 4/20/2004).
Unfortunately, there was a method to the madness as it preserved the ability to renew the attack on Falluja to overwhelm the insurgents with the massive firepower that constituted the Coalition’s only advantage.
U.S. Withdrawal from Falluja?
T he Coalition was confronted with a “lose-lose” situation that will probably become the defining moment of the Iraqi invasion. They could renew the invasion and reap the whirlwind of protest that it would surely generate or they could withdraw and give the guerrillas a victory that would reverberate around the country and the Middle East, and perhaps the rest of the world.
Many of the strongest supporters of the war argued for renewing the attack and using the overwhelming firepower of the U.S. army to sweep away the resistance. Included among the advocates of this option were the Wall Street Journal (4/26/04), and Reuel Marc Gerecht, Weekly Standard (5/3/04), the pre-eminent neo-Conservative scholar on the Middle East .
The WSJ argued against a proposed truce that would have allowed the insurgents to avoid arrest: “We hope this doesn’t represent a decision by coalition political leaders to shrink from the military campaign that is inevitable. Sooner or later the Baath remnants, jihadists and criminals who have used Fallujah as a sanctuary have to be killed…. The U.S. didn’t pursue those Saddamists [last year], and it decided in later months to let Fallujah more or less alone. We now know this was a mistake, and the Marine presence is a recognition that the city can no longer be tolerated as a terror sanctuary.”
Gerecht specifically criticized the stalemate and argued for an immediate renewal of the attack, using almost the same logic: “The United States simply cannot afford to engage in siege tactics. Negotiations must lead to the immediate surrender of the town and all those within it—the surrender of the insurgents’ weaponry is meaningless since weaponry in Iraq can be quickly reacquired. Any agreement where the insurgents abandon their heavy weaponry and withdraw from the town unmolested is even worse. This will only punt down the road to a worse confrontation.... In other words, the only real option is for the Marines to storm the place.”
While the Journal was inaccurate in asserting that the insurgents were all Saddamists, and Gerecht was probably wrong that losing their heavy weaponry would not be a blow to the mujaheddin, their key proposition was validated the day the Coalition withdrew. The victory celebrations that Monday included explicit preparations for the next confrontation.
Those celebrations were only the beginning of the problem the Coalition created by withdrawing. Most people in Iraq viewed the withdrawal as a classic guerilla victory. They had inflicted tremendous casualties on the much larger and better equipped U.S. army, they had halted the U.S. advance into Falluja, they had retained control of Falluja, and they had escaped with their own forces largely intact. But most important of all, they demonstrated that the U.S. Army, despite its overwhelming firepower, could be defeated.
Such a great victory will undoubtedly allow them to recruit many new fighters and it will encourage those new recruits to mount their own attacks on U.S. forces—small at first, but larger and larger as time goes on. In short, as the Journal said in another part of their editorial, the Iraqi insurgents consider the withdrawal “a sign of [U.S.] weakness and [will] ramp up their attacks [in Falluja] and elsewhere.”
Beyond these military consequences, the withdrawal from Falluja immeasurably strengthened the Islamist tendencies within Iraq. Since the mujaheddin and the clerics that supported them were indelibly connected to the fundamentalist wing of Sunni Islam, their victory conferred credibility and popularity on their ideas of religion and of appropriate ordering of civil society. A month after the U.S. withdrawal, Associate Press reporter Hamza Hendawi described Falluja as an “Islamic mini-state,” where women rarely appear in public and then only if “covered from head to toe,” where intoxicated men are flogged, and where Islamist vigilantes close women’s hair salons, street vendors, and other shops that violate their view of Muslim orthodoxy ( Miami SunHerald, 5/26/04) .
The WSJ concluded, “Sooner or later the insurgents have to be defeated, and at the point of a gun, not by diplomacy. If we’re not prepared to do that, Mr. Bush might as well order the troops home now.”
Since Bush was not prepared to engage in the battle in May, and he is not withdrawing the troops, he must be preparing to fight at a later date.
B y withdrawing from Falluja, the U.S. faced the prospect of continued and escalating attacks on convoys moving on major highways, an inability to enter Falluja or many other major towns without encountering ferocious resistance, and a constantly escalating degree of antagonism, armed and otherwise, from the general population. This antagonism will express itself as increasing pressure for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. Even the newly appointed June 30 government may find it must choose between such a demand or losing all credibility with the Iraqi people.
Why, then, did they withdraw from Falluja instead of engaging in a decisive battle? The Journal was careful to outline the consequences of such a strategy: “There’s no doubt Marines could retake the city by force, but the fear is that al-Jazeera and other anti-U.S. media would portray the campaign in the worst possible light and perhaps prompt uprisings elsewhere in Iraq.”
Even if the Wall Street Journal conferred far too much power on the Iraqi cable channels, it was certainly right that the house-to-house fighting needed to retake Falluja could well have produced “uprisings elsewhere in Iraq,” even if the U.S. could have forced a news blackout. These uprisings might well have amplified the Falluja dilemma. In each new location the U.S. would have been faced with the prospect of either giving in to the guerillas or annihilating that city also. That is, attacking in Falluja—like withdrawing from Falluja—might have led to the necessity for violent suppression all over the country.
But there was a difference between fighting in Falluja and withdrawing. On the one hand, if the Marines had attacked, they would have generated an immediate, high profile, high violence, high casualty, highly unpopular confrontation, not only in Falluja but possibly elsewhere as well. They would have faced brutal warfare all summer long and into the fall. On the other hand, their failure to attack meant that they could choose the times, places, and the destructiveness of the confrontations (as they have done in Najaf and Karbala, where the guerrillas are less skilled, less well armed, and less integrated into the population). Until the Coalition decides otherwise, the level of violence can be kept below the threshold of international outrage.
Of course, in exchange for this advantage, the Coalition allowed the insurgents to become much stronger. When the battle does occur, the odds of a Coalition victory will be substantially lower. That is why Marc Gerecht and the Wall Street Journal were so adamant that the attack should occur in May.
But the Journal, Marc Gerecht, and other advocates of leveling Falluja, were forgetting or ignoring one important factor—that for the Bush administration, such an attack in May might have been electoral suicide. The outrage all over the world, fueled by visuals of a whole city laid to waste and (tens of) thousands of civilian casualties would have made the U.S. an international pariah and virtually guaranteed a huge drop in popularity among the non-partisan third of U.S. voters. The New York Times editorialized against this cynical tactic on May 15 when it commented: “Six weeks of military and political reverses seem to have left the Bush administration doing little more in Iraq than grasping at ways to make it past November’s presidential election without getting U.S. troops caught in a civil war.”
The most chilling part of this is that the world must therefore worry about what will happen as soon as the election is over. Whether or not Bush wins, he will then have either a few months or four more years to flatten Falluja (and any other bastion of resistance), since the fear of the election will be gone.
U.S. strategy appears to be this: wait until November and then hope to win the war by devastating one or more resistant cities. Their strategic goal is to kill or demoralize the insurgents while terrifying the civilian population into sullen quiescence. At that time, they will have to rule in an overtly repressive way—military patrols in cities, repression of all resistance (non-violent or otherwise), mass arrests of all opponents (however peaceful). They could not hold elections because Iraqis would vote automatically for anti-U.S. candidates, so we can confidently predict that the U.S. would prevent any anti-U.S. candidates from running. That is, meaningful elections will occur only if the U.S. is forcefully expelled from the country.
So Falluja marked the moment when the U.S. was left with no viable strategy except to embark on a campaign that would end either in its expulsion from Iraq or in the installation of a pro-U.S. regime based on intimidation and violent repression. That is the “democracy” that Bush and his cohorts are trying to bring to Iraq. It bears an unmistakable resemblance to the regime that was just overthrown. But, then, we should hardly be surprised by this, since previous successful campaigns against guerrillas—for example, in Indonesia after World War II or Guatemala more recently —have often created regimes that were analytically indistinct from the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Some optimists among the troops retain the hope that they can still (to use a Vietnam-era catchphrase) “win the hearts and minds” of the Iraqis. For example, Colonel Sassaman in Abu Hishma, told Times reporter Filkins, “With a heavy dose of fear and violence and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them.”
Even among the most idealistic of the rank-and-file soldiers, it is only a matter of time before this wishful thinking turns into cynical propaganda. A better plan is to follow the advice of the Wall Street Journal : “Mr. Bush might as well order the troops home now.”
Michael Schwartz, professor of sociology at SUNY at Stony Brook, has written extensively on the war in Iraq, and more broadly on political sociology. His books include Radical Politics and Social Structure (1976) and The Structure of Power in America (1990). He is currently completing The Rise and Fall of Detroit , a book about the automobile industry from 1900 to 1990.
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; firstname.lastname@example.org; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; email@example.com; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.