Friday, April 04, 2008

Return to Fallujah

In the three and a half years since I left Fallujah, the many of the same Iraqis who fought against us when I was here in 2004 now work with us against a common enemy. They realized that al-Qaeda wanted total control of the population, and used terrorism against the local population to achieve that goal. This included murdering children in horrific ways to get people to plant roadside bombs or become suicide bombers.
Al Fallujah is one of several cities along the Euphrates River where many of Iraq’s Sunnis lived. Although ar Ramadi was the political capital of al Anbar Province, al Fallujah holds a significant position of its own. Its proximity between Baghdad and Syria and Jordan made it a crossroads for the smuggling trade and the Iraqi Baath Party maintained considerable commercial interests there. Even before Saddam came to power, Iraqi’s considered Fallujah a dangerous and unfriendly place—an ancient criminal safe haven and a cesspool of organized crime. Because of its ancient history as a way station for merchants, smugglers, and thieves crossing the desert, some considered this rebellious and independent city a hideout for bandits and terrorists long before the fall of Saddam.
Before Operation Vigilant Resolve in 2004, Fallujah was a large city of 250,000 to 300,000 people, concentrated in a relatively small urban area compared to familiar cities in the U.S (there are many estimates of the cities population). Fallujah’s people are composed of several tribes, of which a hand full of larger tribes vie for control of the city—control of its government, its businesses, its crime—even control its people. While the tribal Sheiks, influential Baathists, and city elders held some power, the Sunni Imams, or religious leaders, claimed a larger share of it for themselves, using their abilities to influence large groups of followers. With three Muslim colleges renowned for Islamic fundamentalism, and seventy-two mosques, Fallujah is Iraq’s Wahhabi capital and is known as the “City of Mosques.” These Wahhabis hoped to establish an Islamic Shariah government in Iraq, intimidating both secular Iraqis and Shias. The convergence of Arab tribal culture, crime, and Wahhabi Islam conspired to make Fallujah a rebellious, independent city, and a potential threat to Baath interests. For these reasons, Saddam kept many of his best troops on the large cluster of bases outside the city now used by Coalition forces.
Following the Baath Party’s fall from power in 2003, Fallujah’s larger tribes began vying for control of the city’s government, businesses, people, and crime. Amid this factional climate, some tribes and factions began attacking and terrorizing their enemies, which invited retaliation and the full fury of vendetta and counter-vendetta custom. Meanwhile, the Wahhabi Imams (religious leaders) joined the foreign fighters, who came for inspired by anti-western rhetoric and religious fanaticism, and began to assert their power for not only control of the city, but for Iraq.
When media generated public outcry ended Operation Vigilant Resolve before it reached its objectives (see the previous blog), Fallujah’s terrorists and guerrillas operated with impunity, and became an al-Qaeda base of operations for attacks on Baghdad. Nicholas Berg and others, as shown on al-Jazeera, were beheaded here. Both senior American and the new Iraqi leadership realized the ending Operation Vigilant Resolve had been a mistake and allowed the U.S. Marines and Army to secure the city in the fiercest urban combat since Hue City in Vietnam.
Since then, the residents of Fallujah have been returning and rebuilding the city. Despite periods of violence in 2005 and 2006, the city, along with all of al Anbar Province, has embraced U.S. forces in a common cause. The U.S. Marine model has greatly influenced the new counter insurgency strategy developed by General David Petraeus and implemented by General Raymond Odierno. Now Fallujah is a place where children can play freely in the streets, and Marines can enter more as guest. Nonetheless, al-Qaeda in Iraq is desperate, and is expected to attempt deadly attacks to disrupt the peace and attract needed media attention.


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