For a year after the US invasion of Iraq, it was the epicentre of military resistance to the occupation, becoming a virtual no-go area for Westerners until the US decided less than two months ago that it had to be pacified by overwhelming force...
Whatever happened to that place, Fallujah? For a year after the US invasion of Iraq, it was the epicentre of military resistance to the occupation, becoming a virtual no-go area for Westerners until the US decided less than two months ago that it had to be pacified by overwhelming force. In early April, it was subjected to intense attack, in which well over a thousand people were killed and more than 60,000 of its inhabitants – out of a total population of 300,000 – were forced to flee the city for safety elsewhere. As fierce resistance prevented the US from taking the city, protests grew in other Iraqi cities, and the Sunni fighters in Fallujah attracted expressions of solidarity from Iraqi Shi’as, Falluja threatened to the become the focus of a general uprising against the US. Just a few short weeks later, however, Falluja has dropped from public consciousness as though it had never existed; even experienced journalists in Iraq are not sure what is now happening there.
What has happened in Fallujah is the successful implementation of a long-established US strategy that many anticipate may yet be replicated in Iraq as a whole, if the US’s attempts to establish a cooperative pseudo-democratic order fail: the transfer of power to a local military strongman who will be able to give the impression of local self-rule, while ensuring that Washington’s essential interests are met. (Think Saddam Hussain pre-1989, for an earlier example.)
For much of late April the US massed troops outside Fallujah, preparing for an assault on the city that would clearly have cause massive carnage and might not, given their previous experiences, have been successful. It would also have provoked outrage elsewhere in Iraq and around the world. Faced with this prospect, the US did a deal with a clique of former Ba’athist officials that they had clearly been preparing for such an eventuality. On May 1 they announced the creation of a Fallujah Brigade that would take over security in Fallujah, commanded by Jassim Muhammad Saleh, a former general in Saddam’s Republican Guard. He entered the city to be greeted triumphantly by its inhabitants, who saw the US’s decision not to try to enter Fallujah themselves as a victory. However, his military style, described as Saddamite by some observers, embarrassed the US, and he was replaced within days by Muhammad Latif, another former Ba’athist general, but with an altogether more acceptable image.
Falluja is now run by Latif, working with local civil authorities but reporting to the US, whose forces seldom enter the city. The ease with which Saleh was replaced when Washington decided he had to go shows whose really in command. However, because the Falluja Brigade is ostensibly Iraqi-led, and has even absorbed some of the city’s resistance fighters, it has been accepted by Fallujans and many other Iraqis. The US, meanwhile, has resolved a long-established problem and is free to focus attention elsewhere, such as Najaf.
This is a pattern that we may well see again in Iraq in future, as the US struggles to secure its interests against the wishes of Iraq’s people.