False Nostalgia: The Original Fallujah Campaign Destabilized Iraq

(By Juan Cole)

We’ve been treated to a rash of articles about how US veterans of the Fallujah campaigns of 2004 are upset about the return of al-Qaeda to that city and the now dominant position of the extremists. Despite my respect for US soldiers who risked their lives, these veterans are making a political argument and I have to point out that it misunderstands what really happened in 2004.

It was being alleged at the time that Fallujah had become the center of the network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who affiliated with al-Qaeda. It was being alleged by US generals that 80% of attacks in Iraq were being carried out by Zarqawi. All of these notions were nonsense. After Fallujah was reduced in late 2004, the Sunni insurgency did not skip a beat, and bombings in Baghdad continued. Likewise when Zarqawi himself was killed in 2006, violence did not subside; if anything, that year it got worse. There were 50 major insurgent cells in the Sunni Arab region, and Fallujah was only one site out of many for them.

George W. Bush was alleged by US reporters to have had a grudge against Fallujah because 4 contractors were brutally killed there by a mob in spring of 2004. “Heads must roll,” he said according to one reporter.

In November of 2004, Bush ordered the invasion of Fallujah. It was a brutal invasion that left much of the city in rubble, something Bush administration flacks attempted to cover up at the time.

Many Sunni Arabs in that era were on the fence and undecided about the US. The Fallujah campaign convinced them that their darkest suspicions of Washington were entirely justified.

But was was important was the outcome of the campaign. It was opposed by the Sunni Arabs of center-north Iraq in general. As it proceeded, more and more of them demonstrated against American rule. Many Sunni Arabs in that era were on the fence and undecided about the US. The Fallujah campaign convinced them that their darkest suspicions of Washington were entirely justified.

As a result, the whole Sunni Arab area cut off ties with the US. In Mosul, Gen. David Petraeus had established good relations with the local elite of Iraq’s 3rd city, which is about the size of Houston. Some 4,000 Mosulis, mainly Sunni Arabs but with some Kurds, had joined a new police force there.

After the Fallujah campaign, all 4000 resigned. Some showed back up in ski masks manning checkpoints for the insurgency.

In Ramadi, Khalediya, Samarra and other Sunni Arab-majority cities, local elites broke with the Americans and their young men joined the guerrillas.

Fallujah for the Sunni Arabs of Iraq was an Alamo, a symbol around which to rally, and a generator of hatred for the foreigners.

Then the Sunni Arab elites announced that they would boycott the parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of January, 2005. Paul Bremer, the American viceroy of Iraq and the UN team had set up a proportional system for the elections that was nationwide. Thus, if throughout the country a party got 10 percent of the vote, they’d get 10% of the seats in parliament. This system is more like a US presidential election than like a congressional one. There were no districts.

That was a problem. With district-based elections, even if there is low turnout, somebody will win and the district will be represented. But in the American-sponsored first Iraqi parliamentary election, it was possible that a group might have no representatives at all if they did not come out to vote.

I was very alarmed by the Fallujah campaign and the alienation of the Sunni Arabs from the voting process. I wrote an op-ed for the Detroit News late in 2004 in which I argued that there should be a one-time set-aside of seats for the Sunnis, in case they ended up not being represented in the legislature.

And here was another problem: Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani had imposed on the Bush administration the principle that the Iraqi constitution would be drafted by elected representatives of the iraqi people. That parliament was also a constituent assembly.

If the Sunni Arabs boycotted the vote and ended up poorly represented in parliament, they would have very little say on the shape of the constitution.

In turn, their lack of input into the constitution might cause them to reject it. A constitution is fundamental to a country. If any large number of persons rejects it, that is a recipe for civil war.

No one paid attention to my op-ed. Iraq held its January 2005 elections. The Sunnis largely boycotted.

The Sunni Arabs ended up with only 17 seats out of 275, and 3 of those were on the Shiite list cobbled together by Sistani.

The Sunni Arabs played very little role in crafting the constitution. In mid-October of 2005, when the referendum was held on the constitution, all three Sunni-majority provinces rejected it.

In 2006, a few months later, a civil war broke out between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. Part of the impetus was the Sunni rejection of what they saw as the Shiite constitution. Some 2500 people were showing up dead every month by that summer. Sunnis were massively ethnically cleansed from Baghdad.

So that was the actual impact of the Fallujah campaign. It pushed the Sunni Arabs off the fence and most of them became anti-American. Thousands of police resigned from their government positions. Entire cities became sullen and rejectionist.

So, the American Fallujah campaign did not save Iraq and nor did it create a path toward democracy in Iraq. To the extent that it angered the Sunni Arabs and alienated them from the American-sponsored political process, it was highly negative. There is a sense in which it led to the civil war of 2006-2007.

The people of Fallujah do not believe that they owe something to the Americans. Even the ones who later allied with the US, in the Awakening Councils, think the US forsook them after 2008. The Fallujah campaign epitomized the hubris of American rule under Bush. It was another step in the downward spiral of Iraq into chaos.

Related video:

CBS reports from al-Anbar province:

13 Responses

  1. Thanks for an excellent summary; it is too easy as a non-specialist to forget the details.

    This is a fine example of the blundering of force without concern for the social and political context, or the goals alleged to the public, as usually happens with our administrations counseled primarily by the NSC, which can see only force as a solution. One wishes that “security” planning was dominated by organizations for the relief of medical, food, housing, and other needs, and followed plans continuously derived from analyses of social, political, and economic processes, which ensured allocation of resources for aid and development processes known to work, rather than right wing militarist fantasies. It is hard to imagine a nonpartisan College of Policy Analysis consistently suggesting destruction of a city.

  2. A well written article giving us insight into the chaos and confusion Bush and Cheney inflicted on a nation that had not harmed us, and it shows not only did we mess it up big time, but how the Bush administration and the neocons, with the aid of the media, covered up big blunders they made, for example in Fallujah. Fallujah not only suffered the consequences of a major onslaught, but the aftermath was terrible…to this day little babies are born deformed and suffering from incurable diseases. So much for winning hearts and minds. The American people, as this article shows, have been deliberately kept in the dark about the tragic blunders made by US troops, by the time these war crimes are uncovered, it will be too late.

  3. Thank you for the much-needed rebuttal of what the US media is saying about recent events in Fallujah. There is the usual amnesia about what happened there or a recasting of the events to suit the US government’s version.

  4. …and in other news, The Surges Worked!

    On the news shows this morning, the President, in obliquely responding to his “good friend” Gates’s book, stated that “we got the policy right” in Afghanistan. link to mediaite.com And in the departure from Iraq, and of course how that whole exercise was conducted? He’s apparently not making that claim. I guess it all depends on how you define the policy and state the goals and define the results, post hoc and after spin.

    All the pundits offer, of course, that if their advice had only been followed, All Would Be Well. Looks like Dr. Cole had the right detailed advice. Too bad we have not learned that for all our vaunted military power, the ability to deliver big explosions or lots of boots or special-ops interventions to random parts of the planet, for all the ability to “start something,” we have neither the wisdom nor the ability to “finish it.” Here’s the first problem: “The misuse of American might, and the price it pays — The United States no longer knows how to win wars, but it continues to start them.”

    link to latimes.com

    Another part is this: For all the Smarts applied to the Problem, there may be no way to “win” a 4th generation war. link to navsci.berkeley.edu

    So “Fallujah,” and “Wardak,” and “I Corps” and other great managed campaigns appear to be nothing but profitable but foolish exercises in futility, arranged by people immune to the consequences on the ground both during the campaign and during the fallout and blowback.

    As to the complicated, essentially infinite and unaccountable and unpredictable interactions (even simpler problems have no path to resolution, link to en.wikipedia.org) that result in War, including Iraq, here’s some MIT thoughts: link to web.mit.edu

    And for fun reading, this is worth a few minutes: link to traditionalright.com

  5. “It was being alleged at the time that Fallujah had become the center of the network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who affiliated with al-Qaeda. It was being alleged by US generals that 80% of attacks in Iraq were being carried out by Zarqawi.”

    In 2004, the Bush administration was still convinced that the Iraqi insurgency was in its last throes, that only a handful of Saddam government dead-enders objected to the occupation, so of course the attacks on U.S. troops had to be coming from al Qaeda.

    It’s difficult to remember now just how profoundly they believed their fantasy about Iraq blossoming into a capitalist, pro-western, democratic utopia once the government was decapitated.

  6. Just a note, the proper and more accurate word is ‘sectarian cleansing’ rather than ‘ethnic cleansing’.

    The Shia on Sunni violent massacre on some mixed populated neighbourhoods, urban and rural, came after a successful campaign and attempts of igniting a sectarian civil war by Al Qaeda and Sunni extremists.

    They rode on perpetual Sunni anger, like de-Bathification (but who also imposed on and attacked other Sunni Iraqis or mixed public places and other minorities), bombing civilian Shia populations and holy places – like the Al Askari mosque in Samarra in 2006.

    It was the last straw for Shia militias (regardless of Sistani’s call for restraint, calm and unity, who continued to try to prevent sectarian attacks by a a Shia majority who had angry sentiments of being oppressed by a Sunni minority, or Sadr’s claim for calm), based on the insurgents own initial and continuing sectarian cleansing program against the majority Shias, which the Sunni minority, if not Sunni world, have still not reconciled with since their loss of power and fond attachment to Saddam Hussein.

    After the brutal atrocity of broadly and indiscriminately targeting Sunni neighbourhood residents, like in Samarra (where the Al Askari mosque stands), which had a Sunni majority despite being the centre of Shia’ism, highlighting a somewhat peaceful arrangement of co-existence historically but now shattered by retributive Shia extremists. However, overall terrorist bombings, committed by then active Sunni insurgents mostly, subsided soon after that event which implied that they were indeed present and found sanctuary among those neighbourhoods.

    Then there was also the US surge and the tribal, and relatively nationalistic, Sunni Awakening Councils elsewhere expelling extremist Sunni insurgents in their midst, who were welcomed earlier and a part of their resistance against the US and Shia-led govt, but realized the greater harm those militants imposed and committed on all Iraqis, including themselves.

    Another travesty on Fallujah was the uranium shells that the residents were bombarded with and exposed to by the US. Children there are still born with serious deformities, apart from the trauma of the invasion, and perhaps much worse than the deterioration of children’s health, greater in number across Iraq, experienced under previous sanctions of the 90’s. Generations have suffered.

    More deplorable that the Maliki govt hushes it up, refuses to acknowledge the crime just to keep relations with the US, and is viewed as symbolically continuing Shia sectarian discrimination and marginalization of Sunnis. They would not be wrong in assuming he’s not a PM for all Iraqis.

  7. Thanks for the reminder and dose of reality. It’s truly significant that the American president acted from the same warped barbarian instincts that inspired so many mass butchers through the millenia. Revenge is never sweet. Revenge may be the only true evil, speaking of the Evildoer-in-Chief.

  8. Opps. Sorry about that last post, please just disregard it. I agree with Professor Cole. The Spin Doctors are working overtime on the Fall of Fallujah. But that also happened in Vietnam too. Everyone and their grandmother got into the usual manipulation to make their point about the war. That’s just what happens when wars, both Vietnam and Iraq, are heading toward their third act in this farce. There was an article in the WashPo where a reporter got the reactions from a group of grunt that fought there in November and December of 2004. A former infantry captain compared it to the fall of Saigon. But it reminds me more of the battle for Hue in the Tet offensive of 1968. But the handwriting is on the wall. We are approaching the end game. And the people who supported,this war are getting rather antsy. There was an op-ed also in th

  9. There are words from the US troops that did what was done in Fallujah some 10 years ago. For a larger set, look up “Marines talk about Fallujah. Here’s one example, from WJCT, Jacksonville, FL:

    “Fallujah Veterans Ask Hard Questions About Their Sacrifices”

    “…First, the Iraqis didn’t ask to be invaded by us. We invaded and occupied badly,” he says. “But on top of that, I’m angry our policy never matched the sacrifice, especially of the Marine Corps.”

    Weston says there’s no clear American solution now, despite real achievement in the past: For a time, Fallujah was stable.

    “I don’t think it was all in vain,” Weston says. “But in the big picture, the American legacy there is now being subsumed by more violence.”

    Troops who fought there knew Iraq always had a good chance of returning to violence. Former Marine Eliot Ackerman, who received a Silver Star for valor in Fallujah, says his Marines talked about liberating Iraq — but only rarely.

    “We were fighting for the same reason guys have always fought: for each other, and for a sense that we were bound to an obligation to serve our country at a time of war,” he says.

    link to news.wjct.org

    Also from today’s WJCT news, there’s this poignant little story:

    “Advocates Hope To Identify Jacksonville’s Most Vulnerable With Homeless Survey”

    link to news.wjct.org

    What a surprise that so many of them are military veterans, hence the VA effort to right some of the shame of the nation for using these people (I have a vested interest, as one of them who got to take part in the 1968 Tet festivities) and kicking them to the curb… Drones and battle robots don’t have nightmares. At their current level of intellectual development and autonomy, at least.

  10. Thanks for the excellent analysis Juan. Yet another example of how Iraq was the biggest military blunder in the history of the US, if not the biggest in the history of warfare anywhere. Despite the US media basically ignoring Iraq now, the entire world is still paying a high price for this outrageous American arrogance and subsequent war crimes. Shameful indeed.

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