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Violence in Fallujah: Poisoned Fruit of US Occupation?

Contrary to conventional wisdom, US actions in Fallujah during – and even before – the Iraq War probably played a role in bringing the latest eruption of violence to the city.

Fallujah, Iraq, January 29, 2005 - US Navy Seabees assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Twenty Three (NMCB 23) patrol the streets of Fallujah, one day prior to Iraq’s historic democratic elections. (Photo: Todd Frantom for the US Navy / Flickr)

Contrary to conventional wisdom, US actions in Fallujah during – and even before – the Iraq War probably played a role in bringing the latest eruption of violence to the city.

Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports that 900 Iraqis have died so far in violence throughout Iraq this year. An epicenter of the country’s unrest is Fallujah, a city seized by militants and extremists at the start of the year, which remains out of the government’s control. The city, which was the site of two deadly US-led sieges in 2004, is being held by “a loose alliance of fighters from [the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham], other Islamist groups, rebel tribesmen and combatants loyal to the Baath Party of former president Saddam Hussein” – a real rogues gallery.

Why Fallujah? Correctly, the poor governance of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is often blamed. Others attribute the city’s descent into the conflict in Syria and rising sectarian tensions in Iraq (the government is led by Shiite Islamists, and Fallujah is a predominately Sunni city). And, of course, some, like Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, have made the almost self-evidently spurious case that US troop withdrawals from Iraq are to blame.

But few have plainly stated that US actions in Fallujah during the Iraq War probably played a role in bringing the city to this crisis point. To the contrary, it is often argued that Fallujah has fallen in spite of, rather than because of, the US one-time military presence in the city. In the extreme, Fallujah is portrayed as a recalcitrant place where traces of the US legacy have simply evaporated. This point of view is just silly.

First Encounters

Jeremy Scahill devotes a chapter of his book, Blackwater, to summarizing reportage on events in Fallujah in the early days of the Iraq War. Scahill actually begins with a story from February 13, 1991, during the first Gulf War. He notes that Fallujah was the site of an errant bombing by British pilots in the United States-led “coalition of the willing.” The poorly aimed airstrikes hit a crowded apartment complex and a market, killing more than 130 people, according to local hospital officials.

Scahill suggests that the bombing was probably still on the minds of some Fallujans as they began to protest the occupation of their city 12 years later. The first of these protests ended in bloodshed, after frightened American soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division fired on Iraqi demonstrators in front of a school converted into a military headquarters on April 28, 2003. A similar incident occurred again on April 30 at a US command post in the city’s former Baath Party headquarters.

Dozens of residents were injured and 17 were killed. Unsurprisingly, in both instances, Fallujans claimed that troops fired without facing any serious provocations, whereas US commanders stated that American soldiers were defending themselves from fire coming from the demonstration. At least regarding the incident in front of the school, Human Rights Watch shed doubt on the US account.

The killings are worth highlighting primarily because they reveal how the occupation of Fallujah helped to destabilize the city in the first place. Up to a thousand Fallujans filled the city’s streets in protest within a few days after the shootings in front of the school. As Scahill notes, one local leader, Mohammed Farhan, would go on to say, “After the massacre, we don’t believe the Americans came to free us, but to occupy and take our wealth and kill us.”

The Unmaking of a City

Fallujah would become a center – if not the center – of the insurgency during the war, under the control of militants much like those who seized the city at the start of this year.

In March 2004, after four Blackwater employees were ambushed and brutally murdered in Fallujah, coalition forces decided that it was time to clear out the militants swarming the city. What followed soon after were the two battles of Fallujah, called Operations Vigilante Resolve and Phantom Fury by the military.

The battles of 2004 were back in the headlines earlier this month after photos of US army personnel posing with the burnt corpses of Iraqis killed in the combat were leaked to TMZ. While the appalling photos may portray aberrant behavior, sanctioned coalition conduct during the operations proved the rule that there is no such thing as a gracious siege.

Apart from killing the city’s insurgents, the attacks on Fallujah claimed hundreds, if not over a thousand,civilian Iraqi lives – along with those of over 100 American troops. Among the more grisly instruments of warfare used to flush out insurgents was an incendiary chemical called white phosphorous. Perhaps even more gruesome, several reports allege that birth defects in Fallujah markedly rose after the battles (though the Iraqi Ministry of Health and the WHO deny this).

Dahr Jamail, an independent investigative journalist, reported that, “at least 70% of the city’s structures were destroyed” during the battles of Fallujah. The Washington Post offered more conservative, but still stunning, numbers for the damage done after the second assault. Citing US officials, that newspaper stated, “More than half of Fallujah’s 39,000 homes were damaged, and about 10,000 of those were destroyed or left structurally unsound to live in.”

The loss of a home is not the sort of event that one simply forgets about a mere nine years later, especially in a country with perennially high unemployment rates. It’s also probably easy to remember the experience of being uprooted from one’s home and transformed into a refugee, as perhaps 200,000 of the Fallujans affected by the sieges were. Moreover, the experience of losing friends or family members as a result of the battles likely weighed on the minds of innumerable residents of Fallujah.

Painful memories are not trivial. In Fallujah, those bitter memories probably help explain why thousands of celebrating residents took to the streets on our 2011 withdrawal, while some held up banners that read, “Now we are free” and “Fallujah is the flame of the resistance.” Moreover, the collective recollections of war and occupation probably continue to feed the outlook of some of the militants roaming the streets today.

At the very least, the United States radically transformed the landscape of the city, and in so doing, quite literally helped make Fallujah what it is today.

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