Rome—It looks as if Iraq’s army and various pro-government militias are about to move into Fallujah, which, of all cities in Iraq, most persistently fought the US-led occupation and continues in revolt against the country’s present inept sectarian rulers.
Artillery is lobbing shells into the city, presumably to flush out Islamic State rebels and terrorists and any civilians that have been able to survive the multiple battles over the town since 2003. Sometime soon, the troops, including Iranian-trained Popular Mobilization Units, will enter; the aftermath will undoubtedly reveal ruined neighborhoods that are the trademark of government re-conquests in central Iraq, the heartland of Sunni Muslims battling the Shiite Muslim-dominated authorities in Baghdad.
Fallujah lies near the main highway from Syria, just 45 miles west of Baghdad. It was a market town for Bedouin tribes who roamed the desert between Iraq and Syria. The city of about 350,000 residents was also considered a pious place, known as the “city of a hundred mosques.” Every other citizen seemed to be a Muslim preacher if he wasn’t involved in the city’s mainstay of cross-border smuggling.
I got to know the dusty street of Fallujah in 2003, at the beginning of the US occupation, when American soldiers were trying to pacify a restless population with such gestures as converting a vacant lot into a soccer field and handing out school supplies. As soon as the Marines departed from inaugurating the field, townsfolk threw trash on it.
Fallujah’s relations with the deposed government of Saddam Hussein had rested on a mistrustful deal: Saddam let Fallujah engage in its customary commerce in contraband in return for not giving him any trouble. An arms merchant at the local weapons bazaar put it like this to me: Saddam told him the dealers could keep selling contraband guns and rifles, but if anyone harmed a hair on his police, he would decapitate every Fallujan.
They pretty much desired the same understanding from the Americans (minus decapitations) but the US was against smuggling and closed down the arms bazaar. Basically, the locals wanted development funds and to be left alone.
Fallujah had limited charms, mostly centered on the country’s best kebab restaurant, Haji Hussein. Everyone in Iraq knew it. My newspaper colleagues at the time said I only went eagerly to do reporting in Fallujah for the kebab. I used to go in every trip, braving the customary hostile stares from patrons holding metal skewers. What the heck, the kebab was nice and juicy.
Americans bombed Haji Hussein in the autumn of 2004 because, supposedly, al-Qaeda rebels met inside. It was rebuilt in 2008, only to be damage by a roadside bombing. Not sure its fate thereafter, but if it is still stands, it is likely to get hit again.
Fallujah first made major news earlier in 2004 when rebels took over, captured and killed four American contractors and strung up the charred bodies of two of them from a bridge. US Marines tried to take the town that April, and failed.
I happened to visit that June, having been told by a Marine spokesman that the city was pacified. My driver and I entered the city only to find it full of masked insurgents carrying rocket propelled grenades, we were able to sneak out because guards at the north end of town were huddling under shade far from their checkpoint. Having escaped, we then ran into an ambush on the way back to Baghdad, when a car with four riflemen shot up our armored jeep. We survived probably because they ran out of bullets.
At the time, US commanders had made a deal with former Saddam soldiers to secure the town from al-Qaeda rebels, but they hung out at a former base outside Fallujah while masked rebels made their headquarters at the big mosque inside. In November, US Marines took back Fallujah, practically razing the town with mortars and artillery.
I visited Fallujah a few years later, when American and Iraqi army troops, made up mostly of Shiites, controlled the city by dividing it into walled sectors. They restricted traffic in and out of the city and monitored the movements of residents from sector to sector with checkpoints. Fallujah was already a wreck–domes on mosques were half shot off, houses pockmarked with bullets– and half abandoned.
Even during the “surge” of US reinforcements meant to shore up the government in 2007, roadside bombs bedeviled the Americans and Iraqi occupiers. On one of my visits, bomb-making material was found in a truckload of ice and a truck filled with explosives blew up a communications tower. Town dignitaries who cooperated with the Americans faced death threats.
I remember US Army troops prepared for Iraqis to take over security by delivering an outhouse as a gift.
Back in 2010, the last time I visited, town dignitaries pleaded with American military visitors to persuade the Baghdad government to provide some sort of aid for Fallujah. First on their list was to raise a nearby dam for more electricity. The US officers nodded vigorously and took notes, but nothing happened. And little happened since. Sunnis, tarred by the government with being incorrigible Saddam backers, have been marginalized politically. The US provided some reconstruction funds, but left in 2011. The Baghdad government ignored Fallujah and other Sunni cities as they vied for power in Baghdad.
In late 2013, Iraqi soldiers violently dismantled a Sunni protest tent camp, part of a nationwide crackdown on Sunni political activity. It was the kickoff of a new revolt, this time with the Islamic State in the lead. ISIS and followers quickly took over parts of the city, set police cars on fire, routed Iraqi troops from checkpoints and raised their flag over mosques and town halls. They have been in control ever since.
So another change of hands in Fallujah is on tap. American involvement will be in the form of picking out targets, sending in drones and perhaps jet bombing. Artillery will randomly flatten houses. Guerrillas mostly will fade away and Sunni civilians will flee. And then what? With no political solution to Iraq’s sectarian divide, Fallujah will remain a battered monument to failure.
From CNN, no cakewalk.