Part 1: Losing It


In early May I took a taxi from Amman to Baghdad. After passing through Jordanian customs and approaching the Iraqi border post, my driver warned me to remain in the car. The Iraqi resistance had people working for it at the border post, he said, and if they saw my US passport they would contact their friends on the road ahead. They would welcome us with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. I pushed the seat back as he said and closed my eyes. Soon we were driving east to Baghdad on Iraq's Highway 10, and I had sneaked into the country without any US or Iraqi official’s cognizance. As we drove past the charred hulks of sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) whose drivers had been less savvy than mine, and whose passengers had been less lucky than me, I wondered who else was infiltrating Iraq with the same ease I did.

When I got to Baghdad my colleagues were aghast to hear that I had taken the road. Nobody drove into Iraq anymore, not since April, when a rebellion had virtually severed the western Anbar province from the rest of the country. Thousands of mujahideen had manned roadblocks, searching for foreigners to kidnap or kill, at least 80 US military convoys were attacked and anybody who could was flying into the country. The locus of fighting had been Fallujah, a dusty town emerging from the desert about 60 kilometers west of Baghdad. Not a place you would remember unless you were kidnapped there.

Fallujah had always been a little different from the rest of Iraq. An American non-governmental organization project manager told me with bewilderment of his meeting with a women’s group from the town who shocked him by being more radical than the men. “We must be willing to sacrifice our sons to end the occupation,” they told him.

Combining rigid religious conservatism, strong tribal traditions and a fierce loyalty to Saddam Hussein, Fallujah battled five different US commanders who were brought in to tame the wild western province of the country. According to Professor Amazia Baram, an Iraq expert from the University of Haifa and the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace, Saddam found greater loyalty in the 300,000-strong city of Fallujah than he did even in his home town of Tikrit. He never executed Fallujans, though he did kill Tikritis who were his relatives, and Fallujans dominated his security and military services. Their proportion of the intelligence services was the highest in the country. This was already beginning to be the case under the Iraqi monarchy, continuing under the regime of the Arif brothers from 1963-68. The Arifs themselves hailed from Fallujah. After the first Gulf War of 1991, Saddam went to Fallujah, not Tikrit, to declare his victory in “the mother of all battles”. He was greeted there with genuine love. Also unlike Tikrit, where the tribes are urbanized, the tribes of Fallujah are concentrated in the rural areas surrounding the city, and thus have not modernized and abandoned tribal mores as much as tribes in other parts of the country.

Situated on a strategic point bridging the Euphrates River in the desert, Fallujah is the center of a fertile region on the outskirts of the desert leading to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. Its location makes it a smuggling center. After the latest war, Fallujah did not suffer from the same looting seen in other parts of the country, as there was less reason to be hostile to the former regime and its institutions. Saddam had given Fallujah virtual autonomy. The religious and tribal leaders appointed their own civil management council even before US troops arrived. Tribes assumed control of the city's institutions and protected government buildings. Religious leaders, whose authority was respected, exhorted the people to respect the law and maintain order. Local imams urged the public to respect law and order. Tight tribal bonds also helped preserve stability. Trouble with Americans started soon after they arrived, however.

A March 29 protest, coinciding with Saddam's birthday, against the 82nd Airborne Division’s occupation of a school turned bloody when US soldiers killed 17 protesters and killed three more in a follow-up protest two days later. A cycle of attacks and retaliation had begun, with the Fallujah-based resistance increasing in sophistication and successive US units throwing their might upon the city in futile efforts to pacify it. Finally, on March 31, four American contractors were killed and mutilated. This was an Iraqi tradition called sahel, a word unique to Iraqi Arabic, meaning the act of lynching. It originally meant dragging a body down the street with an animal or vehicle, but eventually grew to mean any sort of public killing. Iraqis have a history of imposing sahel, even on their leaders, as the former royal family learned.

The slayings of the American mercenaries provoked a Stalingrad-like response by the Americans called Operation Vigilant Resolve. After a month-long siege of Fallujah, during which US forces battered the city in pursuit of about 2,000 armed fighters, the United States received an offer from a coalition of former generals, tribal leaders and religious leaders. The Americans described it as a success but Fallujans were clear that they had liberated their city. The arrangement struck with the Americans was simple: Leave us alone or we will fight you. The details of the agreement went largely unpublished, but the US, which only a week before had vowed to take the city by force, had agreed that General Jassim Muhamad Saleh, a former Republican Guard commander, would establish what has been called both the Fallujah Brigade and the Fallujah Protection Army (FPA). After the US-trained Iraqi army had mutinied, refusing to fight in Fallujah on the grounds that they had joined to defend Iraq, not kill Iraqis, General Jassim and his supporters approached marine commander Lieutenant-General James Conway and offered salvation. "It got to the point that we thought there were no options that would preclude an attack," Conway said. Lieutenant-Colonel Brennan Byrne described it as “an Iraqi solition to an Iraqi problem”. They would crown General Jassim as warlord of Fallujah. "The plan is that the whole of Fallujah will be under the control of the FPA," Byrne said.

One senior US official explained to the Washington Post on May 19, "What we're trying to do is extricate ourselves from Fallujah." But Brigadier-General Mark Kimmitt, deputy commander of operations for the coalition, maintained that marines were not "withdrawing" but were rather "repositioning" and would remain "in and around Fallujah". I saw no marines inside the city and I was told by Fallujah police and soldiers that they would shoot at Americans if they came in, contradicting a statement by the commander of US military operations in the Middle East, General John Abizaid, who said, “We want the marines to have freedom of maneuver along with the Iraqi security forces." Kimmitt insisted, "The coalition objectives remain unchanged, to eliminate armed groups, collect and positively control all heavy weapons, and turn over foreign fighters and disarm anti-Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah." I found no evidence of such policy. Though Kimmitt claimed General Jassim and his 1st Battalion of the Fallujah Brigade would subdue the resistance and foreign fighters, I found the general beholden to the mujahideen leaders, seeking their approval, collaborating with them, and under their command; quite the opposite of Kimmitt’s claim that “the battalion will function as a subordinate command under the operational control of the First Marine Expeditionary Force". And though Jassim was to have been replaced by General Muhamad Latif over allegations of war crimes committed during Jassim’s repression of the 1991 post-Gulf War uprising, I found Jassim still in "command".

April was the worst month for the US-led occupation, which fought a two front war in the Sunni Triangle as well as against the Army of the Mahdi, a militia controlled by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, in Baghdad’s Shi'ite neighborhoods and the Shi'ite south of the country. Fallujah had become a rallying cry for Iraq, uniting its antagonistic Sunni and Shi'ite communities against the occupation, and solidifying the bonds between their militias, creating a popular resistance in Iraq for the first time. After their Fallujah siege, during which all ceasefire attempts had failed, the marines began their withdrawal from the city on April 30. Obstinate resistance fighters who rejected the ceasefire terms killed two marines with a roadside bomb that day, trying unsuccessfully to provoke the marines to violate the accord, and the US withdrawal went ahead as planned. US marines described their May 10 half-hour incursion into the city as the first of the new joint patrols they would make with the Fallujah Brigade, but Fallujans described it as the last time Americans would be allowed to enter their city. There have been no further US patrols in Fallujah.

On the main street of Fallujah, once called Habbaniya Street but renamed Sheikh Ahmad Yassin Street in honor of the Hamas leader killed by the Israelis, laborers with scarves protecting their faces from the dust gather to be picked up for day jobs. It was these angry, unemployed young men, armed with their shovels and pipes, who dismembered the four contractors after the mujahideen had ambushed their vehicles. Young boys sell bananas and Kleenex boxes. The boys serve as an early-warning system for the city, notifying the fighters if they spot foreigners. Fair-skinned journalists told me of hiding low in their cars to avoid arousing attention, only to have the Kleenex boys spot them and shout “American! American!” At a major road intersection, anti-American graffiti in English are scrawled on the walls as a warning to US soldiers.

The boys gathered around me and the laborers removed their kafiyas from their faces to talk. They witnessed the attack on the contractors, they said, describing how the two cars had stopped at a red light and the mujahideen opened fire on them from other vehicles. The rear car was hit and the front car sped off and made a U-turn, but it too was hit. A mujahid shouted: "I avenged my brother who was killed by the Americans!," and the assailants left. An angry mob on the street mutilated the bodies, burning them and beating them with pipes until they were partially dismembered, a gruesome scene captured on film. I asked one Kleenex salesboy if he had done it. “I would even pull Bush down the street!” he smiled. A laborer said, “God and the mujahideen gave us victory. It will spread to all of Iraq and all the way to Jerusalem.”

The bodies were dragged about a kilometer and a half to the old Fallujah bridge and hung from it. Blackwater, the company that employed the four Americans, later claimed they had been held at a roadblock, but in the films of the attack that I watched on promotional jihad compact discs (CDs) sold in Fallujah, there was no roadblock, and it is unlikely that any Blackwater employees ever returned to Fallujah to investigate. According to a US Army major familiar with the events, the murder and mutilation of Americans three kilometers from a US base provoked the marines into taking premature action. “The result on marine operations was that the marines were forced to respond to the incident and thus were not able to choose the timing or location for their operations,” he said. “In other words, they had to attack Fallujah immediately, as opposed to being able to go with their original highly publicized plan of putting platoon-sized elements living with the people, using minimal force combined with a visible maximum presence and developing intelligence portfolios to allow targeted action as opposed to blunt, broad-spectrum action that has had the predictable results of pissing off a lot of Iraqis while being a focal point for nation-wide resistance elements.”

He blamed Blackwater's mercenaries who, in Afghanistan, had almost gotten into firefights with US troops. “Cowboys,” he said. "Their reputation is not good ... basically they are good at shooting guns but do not have a reputation for people with brains or situational awareness. This comes from some friends that worked with them in Afghanistan. My guess is that they did not coordinate their move with the marines in the area [who probably had no idea they were in Fallujah]. The ones who were killed were driving in the city with no crew-served weapons or anybody riding top cover outside of an SUV. That is really stupid. Basically a bunch of high-paid dumb-ass special-forces types who wanted to get in a firefight because they thought they were bulletproof.”

Near the old bridge where the charred bodies were strung up is the Julan neighborhood on the northwestern border of the town. I found the neighborhood’s people sorting through the rubble of their destroyed homes, flattened as if by an earthquake. AC-130 gunships, attack helicopters, and even fighter planes had pummeled the neighborhood where mujahideen held out. I found one man standing in the center of an immense crater that had been his home, his children playing on piles of bricks. Another man sat collapsed in despair in front of the gate leading to his home that had been crushed as if by a giant foot. He played with his worry beads indolently. One by one the men of the neighborhood asked me to photograph the damage US marines had inflicted upon them. As I was doing so a white sedan pulled up and two men covering their faces with checkered scarves emerged, demanding to know my identity. They were afraid of spies, they told me. I convinced them I was just a journalist and they escorted me to a mosque whose tower had collapsed from a US attack. In the still-seething Julan neighborhood, fighters were bitter about the compromise reached with the Americans that ended the fighting, and threatened to kill the leaders who had negotiated and approved the settlement.

Down the railroad tracks on the eastern edge of Fallujah, the Askari neighborhood suffered a similar fate, its homes eaten by US bullets and shells. It is here that US troops man the Fallujah checkpoint alongside Fallujan soldiers, some wearing the uniforms of the former army. Dozens of cars line up there to wind slowly around barricades and be searched for weapons and foreign fighters. My driver resented the hour-long wait and took the back roads into Fallujah, through a moonscape of sand dunes, past abandoned cement factories with cranes frozen atop like skeletons. Fallujah is a center for cross-border smuggling in Iraq and apart from the patronage it received from Saddam, smuggling was the primary revenue earner. As long as Fallujah’s businessmen are permitted to continue their smuggling activities, the town will remain quiescent. Trails carved out of the desert lead into the town from every direction, and the main road is ignored by those who know. On my way out we drove past a lot in the desert where a dozen rusted trucks were parked, with Hebrew writing on them and Israeli license plates, probably stolen in Israel and sold in Jordan. No soldiers or marines regulated traffic in the area, I noticed, as we bumped our way over the dunes.

Fallujah’s lawlessness was actually threatening the economy by obstructing the essential traffic coming in through Jordan. Iraqi friends who had driven the western roads described seeing thousands of mujahideen manning checkpoints made of concrete blocks and logs in the middle of the road and demanding identification cards at gunpoint, searching for foreigners. For the month of April, they had managed to take over the west. They had not been killed or disarmed, so there is no reason to think they cannot do it again.

Referring to Iraq’s Highway 10, a former American marine currently working very closely in a civilian capacity with the marine commanders in Fallujah explained to me, “Fallujah sits on a major artery between Baghdad and the rest of the world. There is no fucking way we will let them stand in our path. We’re trying to rebuild the country. Fallujah is in the way. We will be moving massive amounts of people and material in the region. We would have been using the western route a lot more if it was safe.” I asked him who was in control of Fallujah. “I can tell you who is not in control,” he said. “The marines.” He told me of kidnapping incidents he knew about. “People disappear into the hole of Fallujah,” he said. “The mujahideen control the city.” He was suspicious of anointed warlord General Jassim's ability to control the city, telling me, “I don’t trust Jassim or the Fallujah model.” He was convinced that the status quo in Fallujah would have to be corrected. “The situation will change,” he said. “We should have never gone inside the city. This is not a Marine Corps mission. The marines are a mobile, self-sustainable fighting force. The Marine Corps doesn’t do occupation. We would kick ass shutting borders. The Corps does short displays of massive power. The Marine Corps goes into violent situations, kicks ass and then lets the army handle things. The Marine Corps cannot handle logistics or stay long.” The planned handover of sovereignty to the Iraqis on June 30 would not reduce the need to reassert control over Fallujah, he said, adding, “What will be gone after June 30? A three-letter acronym and some Bush flunkies and third-stringers.”

The marines rely on private companies to supply them with their arms, food, water and all other essential materiel, from Baghdad, Jordan and Turkey. Companies use their own private armies composed of former intelligence and army servicemen to protect the convoys that support the marines in the entire west. They too are vulnerable to the mujahideen. Forgotten is the importance of the Habaniya airbase, also called Al Taqaddum, 80km west of Baghdad. Seized by allied special forces even before the war itself began, it was the main Iraqi airbase outside the former "no-fly zone" imposed after the 1991 Gulf War. It remains essential to support the 25,000 marines occupying western Iraq. The lines of communication, or LOCs, that much of the occupation and economy depend on are thus vulnerable to interdiction, passing through inhabited and agricultural areas that provide cover for the resistance.

US marines conducted their last patrol into Fallujah on May 10. It was a hasty affair. A convoy drove up to the headquarters of the new Fallujah military force for a brief meeting and left. The mood was festive on the streets. Thousands of residents came out for a carnival-like victory celebration. Fighters carrying their weapons piled on to pickup trucks and shot into the air, songs were sung and a sheep was slaughtered on the street. Men queued to sign up for a newly formed military unit, collecting the forms from an Iraqi officer wearing the uniform of the disbanded Republican Guard, seated behind a desk.

A marine colonel responsible for civil-affairs operations in Fallujah admitted to me that he had no role in the negotiations that led to the settlement and knew nothing about them. He and his men were not even permitted to enter the city. Though marine commanders had claimed they would conduct joint patrols with local forces in the city, since May 10 the marines have stayed away. The colonel admitted to me that he did not even know who was in charge of Fallujah.

Brigadier-General Kimmitt had announced: “We have to win this war in Fallujah one neighborhood at a time. We’re going to do it on our terms, on our timeline, and it will be overwhelming.” But General Mattis and his men, escorted by the new Fallujah Brigade for their own protection, had barely been able to penetrate the city. After their safe exit from Fallujah after that last incursion, and after Iraqi forces had raised their own flag - not the new one issued by the Iraqi Governing Council - over the eastern checkpoint, Mattis concluded with a speech: "My fine young sailors and marines, sometimes history is made in small, dusty places like this. Today was good history because we did not get into a fight. Not a shot was fired. We did not come here to fight these people, we came here to free them.” He had forgotten all his demands, including the handover of heavy weapons, the men who killed the four American contractors, and any foreign fighters. The commander of the most powerful fighting unit in the world was satisfied, according to the Associated Press (AP), with the mere fact that “nobody shoots”, and that “any day that there is no shooting it is good”. On April 20, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had warned: “Thugs and assassins and former Saddam henchmen will not be allowed to carve out portions of that city and to oppose peace and freedom.”

The police, civil-defense corps and Fallujah Bigade, all ostensibly under final US authority, told me they would attack Americans should they enter. Although the well-dressed General Muhamad Latif was said to be in control, and General Jassim dismissed, the men of the Fallujah Brigade were still commanded by Jassim, it was to him they gave their allegiance and it was to him the town leaders came to discuss plans for the new army. Jassim’s men were not arresting the mujahideen. Their ranks included mujahideen. The general himself was beholden to the mujahideen leaders, seeking their approval, collaborating with them, and under their command. The police were afraid of mujahideen units who were terrorizing them and civilians.

If Fallujah was quiet now, it was in part because mujahideen leaders had left the city. Some had sought refuge in Baghdad’s Aamriya district, home to Sunni radicals and adjoining the resistance center of Abu Ghraib. Residents of Aamriya told me that after the entrance of mujahideen from Fallujah into their neighborhood, attacks against Americans there had ceased in order to avoid provoking the Americans and revealing their identities. Mujahideen in Fallujah, eyeing the surrounding villages where there tribes were based, and the nearby city of Ramadi, expected similar battles to occur there, leading to the liberation of more territory and a country governed by the resistance. They had been planning for this at least since February. Leaflets had been circulated by “the Army of Muhamad”, instructing people what to do when the Americans left. Meanwhile, a group called the Mujahideen Brigades circulated leaflets in Baghdad urging people to stay home because “your mujahideen brothers in Ramadi, Khalidiyah, and Fallujah will bring the fire of the resistance to the capital Baghdad, and support our mujahideen brothers in the Army of the Mahdi in liberating you from the injustice of the occupation. Forewarned is forearmed.” Other leaflets circulating in Fallujah after the accord condemned the leaders who negotiated it for weakening the resistance.

Should the Fallujah model be applied elsewhere in the Sunni Triangle, it is clear that radical Sunnis in alliance with former Ba'athist officers would seize control - a warlord with a cleric legitimizing him in every city. Within Fallujah, some neighborhoods were still controlled by irredentist mujahideen, bitter at the ceasefire that betrayed their cause. They were threatening the very radical leaders who had tenuous control of the city, condemning their moderation. With no clear leader, the people of Fallujah were worried about internal power struggles turning bloody.

So could the Fallujah model be applied elsewhere? And should it? Supporters of armed resistance to the occupation had assisted the fight in Fallujah, providing food and medicine and smuggling weapons in with the aid that was trucked in from the Mother of All Battles Mosque in Baghdad’s Ghazaliya district. Now Fallujan leaders were supporting Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shi'ite fighters in the south, and meeting with leaders from other Sunni parts of the country.

Leaving aside virtually independent Kurdistan, which has been ruled by two US-supported benevolent warlords for 14 years, there are no military figures who could command legitimate authority in the Shi'ite neighborhoods of Baghdad and the the Shi'ite south. There are only religious leaders such as Muqtada and the network of clerics and gangs he controls. This would be ceding the country to Khomeinist thugs who would impose the strictest form of Islam, meting out religiously inspired death sentences like the Taliban. Abdel Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress and interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi all command armies, but have no significant popular support. Journalists are already asking for written guarantees from militia leaders in Karbala and Najaf in order to operate while Americans desperately search for a suitable local leader to impose his own order. And if US troops cannot deal with the mujahideen, how will the inchoate Iraqi regime?

Members of the former governing council have already voiced their displeasure. Governing council spokesman Haydar Ahmad told the Arabic news network al-Arabiya on May 2 that the Ministry of Defense had not been consulted prior to the formation of the Fallujah Brigade, adding, “The tragedy of Fallujah cannot be ended by forming a force without consulting the authority in this country." Erstwhile US ally Chalabi, interviewed by alJazeera on May 3, said that “the issue is that those who carried arms and the terrorists who fight against the new situation in Iraq are from the Ba'athists and the remnants of Saddam's regime. They should not be given legitimacy to control any area in Iraq by force.” Chalabi compared the solution in Fallujah to returning control of Germany to the Nazis, adding that “The terrorists are free in the secured haven of Falluja.” Chalabi and two other governing council members, Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum and Adil Abdel Mahdi, had co-signed a statement supporting the Iraqi defense minister’s rejection of what they termed "the Republican Guard brigade" in Fallujah as part of the new Iraqi army. A spokesman for leading moderate Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani objected that “members of the Ba'ath Party committed the worst crimes and made bloodbaths and the biggest mass graves in the history of humanity”. The number of armies in the country is only increasing, and unless the United States wants an Iraq of warlord-controlled, radical Islamic fiefdoms like it has in Afghanistan, Fallujah looks like a model for disaster.

Tomorrow: PART 2, The fighting poets

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