The Falluja syndrome: Taking the fight to the enemy that wasn’t

THE IRAQI TOWN OF FALLUJA offers an excellent case study of how the US military in Iraq, by responding to threats in oblivion to a specific cultural and political context, exacerbated those very threats and thus created a much harder task for itself.

Much has been said about the US military’s distaste for stabilization and reconstruction operations, its doctrinal gap pertaining to these issues, its particular lack of preparedness for “phase four” of Operation Iraqi Freedom, its human intelligence shortcomings, its foreign language deficiencies, and its overall cultural insensitivity. But the level of knowledge and assets needed to ensure a seamless transition from Saddam Hussein’s rule of tyranny to a functional democracy was, if truth be told, fundamentally unattainable.

This is not to imply that simply “stuff happens” as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said of the crippling looting that followed the former regime’s downfall. Success in “phase four” could have derived from more foresight and adaptability at the political, strategic and operational levels. The responsibility for failures, nevertheless, too often has been laid at the feet of the tactical player, whose personal qualities can’t be expected to make up for the ambiguities or irrelevance of his assignments, inadequate training and equipment, insufficient resources, or the intrinsically fluid nature of post-conflict situations. The purpose of this article is therefore to illustrate how intuitive assumptions and routine behavior at the tactical echelon, filling in the void left by the absence of proper guidance percolating down from the political, strategic and operational heights may add up and generate effects that extend far beyond their limited initial focus.

What made Falluja, a relatively small provincial town of the governorate of al-Anbar, a symbol of resistance to the US presence in Iraq, requiring in 2004 a massive American onslaught to reestablish some degree of coalition—and central government—rule, and subsequently extreme measures in terms of population control? Falluja remains cordoned off and isolated, its inhabitants have been comprehensively screened and put on record, cars are banned, etc.

In fact, anti-US violence in Falluja can be traced back to as early as May 2003, even before the Iraqi armed forces and security apparatus were disbanded by Paul Bremer—a decision usually seen as the root cause of the insurgency’s rapid escalation. A widely accepted interpretation of Falluja’s insubordination and unruliness is that the town had long been both a former regime hotbed and a capital of radical Islam.

This article purports not only that both explanations are based on faulty assumptions, but that it was these faulty assumptions that led to a “self-fulfilling prophecy” effect. Interestingly, a candid observer circulating in Iraq immediately after the regime’s demise could notice variations in the overall attitude of US forces (regardless of the Army/Marine divide) according to the areas they where deployed in. The general expectation among US forces was that Sunni Arabs were regime loyalists and, as such, would be inherently hostile to any US presence, generating a far more defensive mindset than was perceptible in non-Sunni Arab zones. US forces were in part perceived accordingly. In Falluja, the first few weeks following the regime’s collapse, and the first few days following the arrival in Falluja of the 82nd Airborne, the US unit charged with securing the town, were indeed decisive in setting the scene for Iraqi/US relations in the longer term.

In fact, Falluja, when the former regime fell, was in fact neither particularly a “Saddamist stronghold” nor a breeding ground for religious fanatics.

Undeniably, Falluja has long been renowned for its religious conservatism—it is, after all, nicknamed the city of mosques (Madinat al-Masajid). But this conservatism, overall, remains of a social and cultural character, rather than reflecting a militant bend—and the former regime made sure things stayed that way. Falluja thus bore the brunt of the regime’s repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 60’s and the early 70’s. The first cleric to be assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen was a Sunni imam, ‘Abdul ‘Aziz al-Badr, who was tortured to death in 1969) Numerous military officers from Falluja were marginalized at this time due to their strong religious beliefs. In the 90’s, the regime strived to contain or even eliminate local agitators belonging to a new salafist trend, including some future insurgent leaders such as ‘Umar Hadid al-Muhammadi or ‘Abdallah al-Janabi. Although one of the regime’s foremost official clerics hailed from Falluja (‘Abdul Latif al-Humayyim), he stood for mainstream Islam, and was instrumental in promoting Saddam Hussein’s “Faith campaign”, a policy designed to neutralize and “nationalize” Islam.

When it comes to Falluja as a hub of “Saddam loyalists”, the same mixed picture arises. The strong tribal makeup of Falluja led to the co-optation in the former regime’s security apparatus of some its most important tribes (al-Muhamida, Albu ‘Isa, al-Zawba‘, Albu ‘Alwan, as well as the Halbous and Alus clans). But some tribes were excluded—the Jumayla in particular suffered exclusion, for having been part of the previous dictatorship’s powerbase. Being part of Saddam Hussein’s powerbase also meant extremely high exposure to purges and humiliations of all kinds. The famous Albu Nimr tribe, based between Falluja and Ramadi, engaged in a cycle of reprisal killings with the regime after the gruesome assassination, in 1995, of one of its most distinguished members, Air Force General Muhammad Madhlum al-Dulaymi, who was arrested on suspicions of disloyalty and subsequently returned to his family cut up in pieces. The consequences of the ensuing feud were badly felt throughout the Dulaym tribal confederation, to which the Albu Nimr belongs.

Also needed here is a short discussion of the idea of a town lavished with privileges by the former regime. Whatever “privileges” were extended to Falluja inhabitants were both highly selective and dearly paid for. Absolute loyalty was expected in return for any form of sponsorship, however nominal, leading local chieftains, for example, to turn in clansmen pursued by the security apparatus, in contradiction with the most sacred traditions of tribal solidarity. Some local businessmen thrived through close interaction with the regime, such as the Humayim family, following as similar pattern to the Kharbit or Ga’ud families from nearby Ramadi, all of whom are said to have contributed to funding the insurgency in Falluja in 2003 and 2004. But Falluja hardly ever was a major target for State investments in infrastructure. To date, its industrial capacities remain minimal. Up to the 2003 war, its economy relied rather on mom-and- pop stores and, above all, smuggling.

All in all, the prevailing frame-of-mind in Falluja before the war’s outbreak was no doubt one of distrust toward the US, but also one of overriding lassitude, frustration and resentment inspired by the regime. The way the scale was tilting was illustrated during the 90’s by various troubling signs of defiance, most notably friction between the regime and the tribes of al-Anbar.

Symptomatically, not a shot was fired in Falluja during the war in Saddam Hussein’s defense. As the regime collapsed and its representatives went into hiding (even in Falluja), the town’s religious and tribal figures set up a committee of elders to secure the city and ensure a smooth transition, while at the same time sending out a delegation to inform the US of Falluja’s peaceful rendition. Saddam’s early call upon his followers to rise up against the occupants was even formally rejected and denounced by Falluja’s leaders in a joint statement—even though trouble between the US and the town’s inhabitants had already began.

To understand how such violence could have been prevented, one has to understand what the Iraqi expectations were at the time of the coalition’s deployment in Falluja. These expectations can be summed up as follows: a low military profile, a tangible reconstruction drive, and respect for existing structures—meaning coordination with the elders’ committee, the only surviving authority and a genuine reflection of the town’s social makeup and traditions. What happened instead came as a shock to inhabitants and leaders alike.

The US forces established a major base in the heart of the town, on the main street, heavily defended, and encroaching on the town’s civilian infrastructure. The inhabitants thus immediately pointed out that the US had only days before been criticizing the former regime for using civilian infrastructure for military purposes. Outposts were also set up in residential neighborhoods with observation posts on their roofs, an insufferable behavior in the eyes of an extremely conservative society. Rumors instantly circulated accusing US soldiers of using vision devices that could see through walls and undress women. To make things worse, aggressive patrols in full body armor, weapons on the ready, were mounted throughout the city.

In terms of reconstruction, no clear perspectives were provided to the population. No particular recognition was afforded the committee of elders, which was clearly viewed by US forces with suspicion as the embodiment of an undesired, archaic order of affairs. From a US army standing point, priorities were still force protection, logistics and hot pursuit of the former regime’s “last remnants,” while stabilization and reconstruction activities were left to improvisation. This led to a degree of complacency toward looters: inhabitants even reported that US forces had actually facilitated their work by helping them into certain hangars.

In this context, what was initially a manageable incident degenerated into a vicious cycle of violence. What caused the incident in question was a small demonstration staged in front of one of the schools used as an outpost which demonstrators wanted to see relocated. According to US reports, the protest had reflected pro-Saddam feelings. Portraits of the former President had been displayed, and shots had been heard, to which the soldiers had responded with lethal although legitimate force. Up to 20 people were killed, dozens others wounded. Various journalists claimed it had been a strictly peaceful and non-politicized rally. A sincere investigation would promptly have dispelled any controversy.

The author’s own inquiry confirmed that posters of Saddam had indeed been on parade, and shots might well have resounded. But no impact whatsoever could be seen in the immediate aftermath of the event on the front of the school, no damage to the surrounding wall either. The garrisoned troops had obviously been under no pressing, critical threat, at least not threat that could have justified the level of response: buildings across the road were smattered with heavy machine gun rounds; people were killed inside their houses; and a car parked in its garage was hit by more than 70 bullets. Among the ordnance used were grenades and explosive bullets.

More importantly perhaps, similar demonstrations happened in Shiite zones without ever warranting the same response. In Diwaniya, a major recruiting hub for the former Iraqi army and nonetheless a 100% Shiite town, portraits of Saddam and “Baathist” slogans were also features of later protests staged against Paul Bremer’s summary disbandment of military personnel. No incident was ever reported.

In Falluja, the US reaction of denial only alienated the population further. The above mentioned car was towed away by the 82nd Airborne before the media could arrive on site. Aggravating declarations were made to the press by US officials in Baghdad, while the local US commander remained essentially silent. No dialogue was initiated with local authorities or with the victims. No military official paid a visit to the town hospital until days after the event.

In response, new demonstrations occurred during the week, with more bloodshed. Then grenades were lobbed into the US headquarters in downtown Falluja. The US forces opted for a show of force. On the following Friday, tanks were positioned in front of every mosque. More patrols were mounted, with more aggressive assignments. Helicopter over flights at low altitude became routine. More muscle also meant further distraction from reconstruction efforts, and a breakdown in relations with local leaders.

This outcome was far from inevitable. At the end of the first week of violence, prayer leaders had in fact acted to prevent an escalation by calling upon their followers to come and pray, thereby instating a curfew of sorts to avoid greater bloodshed.

The point here is that the US military played a large part in creating the kind of hostility it expected in the first place. This came as a result of deeply ingrained assumptions regarding the Sunni Arab nature of the former regime. These basic assumptions were all the more decisive because no clear stabilization and reconstruction plan existed making for a vacuum conducive to the expression of preconceived ideas.

To conclude on the full bearing of such assumptions, one needs to go even further. There was, in essence, no such thing as a “Sunni Arab community” shaped by a common sense of identity and shared interests. There was no such thing as a “Sunni Triangle” that could be dealt with en bloc. Saddam Hussein’s personal power was built at the expense of many of his presumed “natural allies”. Powerful Sunni Arab tribes were expropriated from some of their lands, to close to Baghdad for the tyrant’s comfort and many of their foremost members were publicly humiliated, ostracized, or purged for carrying too much weight not to become a threat. Saddam Hussein subverted the traditional hierarchy among the tribes of his hometown Tikrit, and within his very own tribe, to serve his particular purposes; he cracked down upon the core of Sunni Arab commanders hailing from Mosul and Baghdad, in order to promote a new generation of young, rural officers he could more readily control. By and large, Saddam cut off any head that dared surface above a sea of amorphous, interchangeable, and innocuous followers and he showed no scruples at doing away with those of his closest relatives who, for sound reasons or on a whim, lost his trust.

In no way should this description be understood as minimizing the sufferings of other components of Iraqi society, nor should these intense sufferings overshadow the true nature of this regime. Saddam was an equal-opportunity killer to say the least. Ample proof of Saddam Hussein’s destructive rapport with his own kin was given after the regime’s demise by the lack of obvious representatives for a Sunni Arab constituency that appeared more dislocated than its Shiite and Kurdish counterparts.

Ironically, the US-led coalition played a large part, through the establishment—de facto—of polarized relations with the different components of Iraqi society, in buttressing their specific and conflicting collective identities. The widespread sense of having been deposed, dispossessed, and disparaged in a political process serving what Sunni Arabs see as threatening agendas is a sentiment which followed to the regime’s overthrow. Feeling “under siege” has come to be the primary building-block of an emerging, deeply resentful Sunni Arab identity, a fact that communication-savvy insurgent groups have incorporated as a key element of their propaganda efforts.

Sectarianism in Iraq was never a given, although mutual prejudices and distrust—however repressed—were rife long before the war. But US perceptions of Iraq’s makeup were key to institutionalizing identity politics, thus inflaming the very sectarianism that has become the one major threat to US interests in Iraq.

Originally published in Campaigning, Joint Advanced Warfighting School, Fall 2006. 

Illustration credit: William Holman Hunt The Scapegoat by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.