The fog of Fallujah

Was it an epoch-shaping battle or a bloody skirmish?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

What’s going on in Fallujah? The war-torn city in northern Iraq has dominated the headlines for three weeks, but everyone from Fallujah residents to US defence officials seem confused about what’s happening on the ground.

One minute we are told that the clash between US soldiers and anti-coalition forces is an epoch-shaping battle. A recent report described Fallujah as ‘a defining moment in America’s history’; British journalist in Washington Andrew Sullivan said the battle of Fallujah contained ‘the entire future of the attempt to break the back of Islamist terror and Muslim autocracy’. It’s ‘Iraqalypse Now’, said some reports (1). Yet this morning we hear that US marines have started to pull out of Fallujah, having handed authority over the city to a new 1000-strong Iraqi force called the Fallujah Protective Army, headed by a former Ba’athist general no less (2).

Reporters have accused America of using reckless force in Fallujah. From Britain’s anodyne morning show GMTV to the liberal Channel 4 News, journalists have pointed the finger of blame for Fallujah at ‘American arrogance’ and ‘extreme force’. ‘Jaw agape and fangs unsheathed, American colonialism has lashed out with severe brutality’, said one American left-wing critic of the Bush administration (4). From the polar opposite of politics, Sir Peter Tapsell, Conservative MP for Louth and Horncastle, asked Blair in a parliamentary debate whether America’s ‘murder and mutilation’ of hundreds of women and children was an appropriate response to the murder of four American civilian contractors in Fallujah three weeks ago (5).

Yet according to the New York Times, ‘Amid condemnation in Europe and elsewhere for what some leaders say are heavy-handed tactics, US military and civilian officials in Iraq have shown much reluctance for a return to all-out fighting [in Fallujah], despite strong talk from President Bush’ (5).

So what was Fallujah all about? An historic battle between America and Islamist terrorists, or a bloody skirmish that’s now been resolved? An example of US barbarism in action, or something akin to the British siege of Basra last year, where forces encircled the city for two weeks, called in helicopter gunships to fire from on high, and eventually struck a deal? Is the battle of Fallujah even over yet? Reports claim that following the announcement of a deal between US marines and civilian leaders in Fallujah for the creation of a new Fallujah Protective Army, the US navy dropped three 500lb bombs in ‘the Fallujah area’ (6). ‘It’s a confusing situation’, said US deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowtiz (7).

It certainly is. This confusion over Fallujah is a consequence of two things: the coalition’s defensive occupation, which combines big talk about battles between Good and Evil with cautious action on the ground; and some deeply cynical reporting of the occupation by American and European journalists, who sometimes seem to be motivated more by kneejerk anti-Americanism than a commitment to investigating the story. As a result, the truth about Fallujah is that few of us really know the truth about Fallujah.

Looking through the fog of Fallujah, the battle over the city seems to provide something of a snapshot of the coalition’s war and occupation, of the disparity between the coalition’s grand claims about a mission against evil and the reality of what looked like a risk-averse war.

Before the war President Bush said this was ‘a defining battle’, that the coalition would ‘apply decisive force….this will not be a campaign of half-measures’. In fact, the coalition sought to achieve victory with minimum risk. It dropped big, shocking bombs from the skies (shock’n’awe) in an effort to encourage Saddam’s men to surrender, followed by the movement of a relatively light, fast column of ground troops from the south who, it was hoped, would be cheered by liberated Iraqis (8).

In short, the coalition’s war contained a profound contradiction from the start: it was presented as a mission of global importance, but one in which few risks would be taken and every effort made to limit casualties; it was a display of America’s military might in the Gulf, where the strategists advised holding back from deploying that military might to full effect.

A similar process appears to be underway in Fallujah. It was coalition officials who first talked up Fallujah as the defining issue in postwar Iraq, where the battle for democracy would stand or fall. Two days ago, James Mattis, First Marine Division Commander, confidently declared: ‘We will move precisely against the enemy elements and crush them without harming the innocent.’ But again, there was a big difference between the coalition’s talk and its actions. For all Mattis’ claims about crushing the enemy, in fact US forces have remained on the outskirts of Fallujah for the past three weeks, and for months before that. Indeed, US marines, who took over from the US Army’s 82nd Airborne three weeks ago after things heated up, claim that ‘the army’s practice of staying out of town allowed the security situation in Fallujah to fester’ (10).

Now the marines, too, appear to be staying out of town. US commanders have said they are ‘taking great pains to avoid an all-out attack’ on Fallujah. The New York Times reports that ‘the idea of sending joint American-Iraqi patrols deep into the city has been put off several times’ over the past three weeks of tensions (11). Instead, marines have surrounded Fallujah, firing at Iraqis from the outskirts of the city, while calling in helicopter gunships and bombers to fire on suspected hostile quarters from on high.

Reportedly, one reason why Washington has refused to give the go-ahead for an invasion of Fallujah is because it fears that ‘images of fierce fighting in Fallujah will stir uprisings throughout Iraq and outrage throughout the Arab world’ (12). For all the big claims of defending democracy in the Middle East, if not the world, by taking a stand and crushing the enemy in Fallujah, it turns out that the coalition wants to avoid doing anything that might rankle Arabs and end up on al-Jazeera.

This is the war and occupation in action, where coalition forces lash out from a distance, whether from the outskirts of a city or from the relative safety of the skies, before ducking behind the wall again or retreating back into Saddam’s former palaces (where many of the 135,000 American troops deployed in Iraq appear to spend their time). That is what the Brits did in Basra in April 2003 (though then it was referred to as a ‘genius military tactic’ rather than ‘jaw agape’ barbarism) and it is what America seems to be doing in Fallujah. It is a one-step forward, two-steps back kind of occupation, driven by a broader sense of uncertainty and indecision at the heart of the coalition.

It is this arbitrary execution of the occupation, which can be shaped as much by concerns over images on Arab TV as by strategic considerations, that has allowed so many varied interpretations of what is taking place in Fallujah – whether it’s seen as the defining political battle of our age, or a ruthless American assault from the skies.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Fallujah and Najav, Andrew Sullivan, Daily Dish, 27 April 2004

(2) US troops pull back from Fallujah, Guardian, 30 April 2004

(3) We are the barbarians, M Junaid Alam, Counterpunch, 28 April 2004

(4) Battles rage in Fallujah despite ceasefire, Toby Harnden and George Jones, Daily Telegraph, 29 April 2004

(5) US weighs Fallujah pullback, leaving patrols to Iraq troops, John Kifner and Ian Fisher, New York Times, 30 April 2004

(6) US weighs Fallujah pullback, leaving patrols to Iraq troops, John Kifner and Ian Fisher, New York Times, 30 April 2004

(7) Ten US soldiers killed; US held Fallujah talks, Bloomberg, 29 April 2004

(8) See Military disengagement, by Brendan O’Neill

(9) US weighs Fallujah pullback, leaving patrols to Iraq troops, John Kifner and Ian Fisher, New York Times, 30 April 2004

(10) US weighs Fallujah pullback, leaving patrols to Iraq troops, John Kifner and Ian Fisher, New York Times, 30 April 2004

(11) US weighs Fallujah pullback, leaving patrols to Iraq troops, John Kifner and Ian Fisher, New York Times, 30 April 2004

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Topics Politics


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