Few sceptics doubted that the long-anticipated attack on the Iraqi city of Falluja, some 70 kilometres (about 45 miles) to the west of Baghdad, would be launched with unusual ferocity. Still fewer doubted the US Marines’ ability to retake the city. But, far from crushing the resistance to the occupation, the assault seems only to have widened the scope of resistance, increasing the political risks for the interim government of Iyad Allawi, who ordered the assault.
At the time of writing, Falluja has largely fallen to the invading forces, despite the continued presence of pockets of resistance. Yet even if the US-led forces succeed in retaking the city, it is unlikely that they will be able to keep it for long. The assault on Falluja has not beaten the resistance into submission; rather, it has caused many of the resistance fighters there to go elsewhere. Fighters started withdrawing from the city even before the attack started.
Many are reported to have taken refuge in other areas, where they are regrouping. Others are believed to have gone to other cities and towns. Many are expected to return to Falluja once the American presence there is slashed and the city is handed over to Iraqi forces. When this happens, the Iraqi National Guard and police forces are unlikely to be able to keep the city. This pattern of retreat and return was seen earlier in Samarra, a city to the north of Baghdad, which was stormed in October by US and Iraqi National Guard troops, who then claimed to have wiped out resistance groups in the city. Yet there were renewed resistance operations forces within a few weeks.
On November 7 the Iraqi government announced a 60-day state of emergency across most of the country, except for the Kurdish areas in the north, which have mostly been peaceful. Curfews were imposed on various areas, and the next day some 10,000 US Marines, backed (for propaganda purposes) by 2,000 Iraqi National Guardsmen, attacked Falluja: this was called “Operation Phantom Fury” by the Americans and “Al-Fajr” (‘dawn’) by the Iraqis. For several days US tank, air and artillery fire poured death and destruction on Falluja, while the invading forces attempted to spread their grip across the city, meeting in the process fierce resistance from determined fighters who engaged advancing troops in close combat. The lightly armed fighters made effective use of Falluja’s narrow streets and alleys to gain advantages over the better-armed occupation forces.
The Battle of Falluja conjures up images of medieval sieges. Attacking troops cut off power, water and food supplies, and the stench of decomposing bodies hung heavily over the city. Dramatic TV footage from the battlefield showed a city engulfed in thick black smoke and houses and neighborhoods reduced to rubble. Iraqi Red Crescent convoys were prevented for many days from delivering supplies to residents trapped in Falluja. Many families had to bury their dead in their gardens.
Despite imposing tight controls on media coverage of the fighting by means of a pool arrangement, in which journalists are “embedded in” (i.e. attached to) the military, some news of atrocities committed by American troops still got out. The worst episode known so far is the killing of an unarmed and injured Iraqi by a US Marine in a mosque in Falluja. The slain man was among a group of men wounded in fighting a day earlier. The killing, which was videotaped by an NBC pool correspondent, is a flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions, which oblige the warring sides to protect wounded combatants once they are out of action. Wilful killing of wounded combatants is a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions. Such breaches are considered “war crimes” under the US federal War Crimes Act of 1996.
From the Americans’ point of view, the merciless ‘pacification’ campaign against Falluja was supposed to show the rest of the country that the occupiers are determined to deal a death blow to armed insurgency everywhere. But this message has failed so far to affect the resolve of the resistance. In other Iraqi cities and towns, including Mosul, Ramadi, Baiji, al-Qa’im and Ba’aqubah, there have been armed uprisings in sympathy with Falluja; in many other parts of the country, including Baghdad, there was an upsurge in resistance activities. At various times entire cities, or whole neighbourhoods in them, have slipped out of the control of US forces.
The Iraqi National Guard and American troops have launched a series of military operations in these cities to retake these areas. Recognizing their inability to take on America’s firepower in direct confrontations, resistance-fighters in these cities have generally avoided engaging the US-led forces in pitched battle. Local resistance-fighters simply go underground when the American and government forces storm their cities. Their aversion to direct engagement is matched by their increased determination to launch more daring classical guerrilla warfare and ‘suicide bombing’ attacks, in an effort to harass their enemies constantly and leave them unable to relax or stand down.
Falluja has long been a thorn in the side of the occupation. The variety of groups acting in this hotbed of resistance is astonishing. It comprises religious conservatives, Sufis, takfiri salafis, both indigenous Iraqi salafis and non-Iraqi al-Qa’ida admirers, tribal elements, former members of the Ba’ath party, army officers and secret-service agents. Last winter the various groups formed a Shura council, named the Mujahedin Shura Council, which is directed by two local imams, Abdallah al-Janabi and Dhafer al-’Ubaydi. Janabi is believed to be the spiritual leader of a cluster of takfiri salafi groups.
In April a US assault to wrest control of the city from resistance-fighters was called off amid a widespread outcry and political fall-out from mounting civilian casualties and objections from the Iraqi Governing Council. The attack in April was arranged hurriedly after four American security contractors from the Blackwater company were killed and their bodies mutilated in an attack on their convoy in Falluja. This time round the attack was carefully planned and repeatedly rehearsed. The fighters inside the city were better prepared as well.
Both sides used a long-drawn-out process of negotiations between the interim National Assembly and a delegation of notables in Falluja to prepare for battle. As time went on, it became increasingly clear that the demands presented by each side to the other were irreconcilable. For instance, the government demanded the handover of Arab fighters, including Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, head of the al-Qa’ida-linked organization Qa’idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (“the base of jihad in Mesopotamia”). The Falluja delegation regarded this condition as an “impossible condition” that had been presented to torpedo the negotiations altogether. For their part, the Falluja delegation demanded the reinstatement of the old Republican Guard corps, which had been dissolved after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
From the beginning, the attack on Falluja was combined with preparations for the general elections, scheduled to be held by the end of January. On several occasions Iraqi and American officials stressed that they could not allow Falluja to remain a stronghold of resistance as the elections approach. The main declared motivation for retaking the city was couched in terms of regaining a level of security and safety sufficient to make Iraq safe for elections. The US defence secretary said: “You cannot have a country that is free and democratic … if you have safe havens for people who go around chopping people’s heads off.”
For his part Allawi said that the emergency law and retaking Falluja are intended to ensure that the Iraqi elections stay on track. But many are sceptical that the assault on Falluja will serve to ease the escalating tension in Iraq before the elections. In fact, UN secretary general Kofi Annan warned that any assault on Falluja could set off much more violence, which would render the elections in January virtually impossible. In a letter addressed to US president George W Bush, British prime minister Tony Blair and Allawi, he wrote: “[V]iolent military actions by an occupying power against inhabitants of an occupied country will only make things worse.”
So in many ways the attack on Falluja was carried out to convince segments of the Iraqi people, many of whom are opposed or uncommitted to taking part in the political process, mainly the Sunnis, that armed resistance is futile. Sunnis played a pre-eminent role in government under Saddam Hussein’s regime; the fall of the regime produced a sense of political marginalization among some Iraqi Sunnis.
Yet, instead of luring the Sunnis into the political process, the military action in Falluja increased the sense of political alienation and marginalization among them. If anything, the assault on Falluja failed to convince the Sunnis that they could hope for a significant role in the new Iraq. As soon as the attack started, the Association of Muslim Scholars (Hay’at ‘Ulama’ al-Muslimin), the main group of Sunni scholars, announced its decision to boycott the elections. A statement read in Baghdad by AMS chairman Shaykh Harith al-Dari said that the elections will be held “over the bodies of those killed in Falluja and the blood of those injured there.” The statement also held the Allawi government responsible for “the genocidal war directed at Falluja at the hands of occupation troops and militias belonging to some parties taking part in the interim government.”
For its part, the Iraqi Islamic Party (al-Hizb al-Islami al-Iraqi), the dominant Sunni group in the interim government, announced its decision to withdraw from the cabinet, saying that it did not want to be held responsible for the illegal shedding of Iraqi blood. However, Hachim al-Hassani, IIP’s representative in the interim government, refused to step down from his post; the party responded by expelling him from its ranks. But it has said that it will remain engaged in the political process, retain its four representatives in the interim national assembly, and take part in the elections.
As resistance in Falluja waned, Iraqi and US forces began moving against ulama and politicians who had opposed the assault on the town. Scores of ulama, including Shaykh Mahdi al-Sumayda’i, the head of the salafi Supreme Committee for Da’awah, Fatwa and Guidance (al-Hay’ah al-’Ulyah lil-Da’awah wal-Fatwa wal-Irshad), were arrested. Nasir Awfi, deputy speaker of the interim national assembly, who belongs to the IIP, was likewise arrested. Several IIP offices throughout the country have been raided. Many mosques have also been stormed, including the Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad.
The fact that the attack on Falluja was not pushed through with the swiftness initially promised by US and Iraqi officials and field commanders has shaken the idea in many Iraqis’ minds of the American military juggernaut being invincible, leading to speculation about whether the resistance might eventually be victorious. In 1968, US Marines launched a ferocious attack on the Vietnamese city of Hue, in hopes of rooting out anti-US resistance there and sending a stern message to anti-US forces elsewhere that they would be dealt with mercilessly. The attack, which some historians believe was the bitterest battle of the entire Vietnam War, devastated the city.
But, far from pacifying the insurgency, the Battle of Hue served only to fuel it. Similarly, the Battle of Falluja is likely to stiffen the Iraqi resistance and arouse even more intense anti-American feeling. This has been recognized even by American officials. General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned Americans: “If anybody thinks that Falluja is going to be the end of the insurgency in Iraq, that was never the objective, never our intention, and even never our hope.” Instead Falluja will become a rallying-point for the Iraqi resistance as never before.