Fallujah: a theatre of war

Both the US forces and insurgents are playing war games.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

There seem to be two battles raging over Fallujah. There’s the real one, a squalid bloody clash between US forces and masked insurgents, about which we still know little for certain – except that, 48 hours after invading from the north, 15,000 US and Iraqi troops reportedly control around 70 per cent of the city and have killed at least 71 insurgents. Then there’s the fantasy battle, where commentators in the West seem to be competing to see who can describe the clashes in the most extravagant, epochal terms possible, under headlines such as ‘The Christian Nation bombs again’ and ‘Fallujah’s defiance of a New Empire’ (1). The reality and the fantasy are worlds apart.

Both sides of the war debate have talked up this latest showdown. In a pep-talk to marines, US Sergeant Major Carlton Kent evoked Vietnam and encouraged his men to ‘kick some butt’ (2). On the other side, anti-war journalists write about the insurgents as if they were a great resistance in the mould of the Viet Cong, one celebrating Fallujah as a ‘world-renowned centre of defiance, where a poorly armed people has courageously faced the military wing of the new empire’ (3). The British hardline Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir goes so far as to describe America’s assault on Fallujah as a ‘brutal genocide’ (4).

In truth, US forces have returned to Fallujah more out of desperation than a desire for imperial conquest, in search of that symbolic victory that has thus far eluded them in Iraq. And the insurgents are no national liberation force, but rather chancers taking potshots at what they consider to be cowardly occupiers.

It’s true that Fallujah has become a ‘centre of defiance’, in the sense that various anti-coalition elements, including former Ba’athists, Sunni militants and foreign fighters, have holed up there. Yet many have forgotten how Fallujah assumed this role. The insurgents didn’t ‘take’ the city, winning it from the coalition and transforming it into a beacon of independence to the rest of Iraq; rather they moved into Fallujah as coalition forces vacated. US forces have stayed on the outskirts of Fallujah and dropped bombs from on high, refusing, until now, to venture into the city centre – and it was this strategy that created the space for the ‘rise of resistance’, allowing insurgents to taunt their American foes (5). Fallujah is best seen as a symbol of US indecision rather than of resistors’ determination.

From October 2003 to March 2004, Fallujah was the responsibility of America’s 82nd Airborne division, which largely patrolled the city from the skies. Indeed, when the city was handed over to the marines at the end of March 2004, they complained that Airborne’s ‘practice of staying out of town allowed the security situation in Fallujah to fester’ (6).

Yet the marines also adopted an out-of-town approach. They kickstarted a siege on 5 April 2004, lasting for a month, during which time they remained on the outskirts and called in fighter planes to attack. The New York Times reported that during the siege, ‘the idea of sending joint American-Iraqi patrols deep into the city [was] put off several times’; one of the Americans’ concerns, apparently, was that ‘images of fierce fighting in Fallujah will stir uprisings throughout Iraq and outrage throughout the Arab world’ (7). At the end of the siege, on 1 May, all 700 marines pulled out and handed the city over to the newly-created Fallujah Brigades, headed by a one-time Ba’athist.

It was America’s cautious approach that helped to transform Fallujah into a ‘centre of defiance’. As one reporter noted, during and after the marines’ half-hearted siege in April, insurgents ‘flocked to Fallujah’ to take advantage of what had become a ‘no-go zone’ for coalition forces (8). Yet it wasn’t insurgents who made Fallujah into a no-go zone; it was the coalition itself, which wanted to ‘no go’ anywhere near the city centre, for fear of suffering casualties or being drawn into any unseemly hand-to-hand fighting that might rankle the Arab world or end up on al-Jazeera.

The insurgents have consistently fed off the coalition’s caution. Indeed, they seem to exist simply to taunt the Americans rather than having any kind of political programme or aspirations to free Iraq. One fighter told the Guardian, ‘We are here not because we want to liberate Iraq, we are here to fight the infidels…’ (9). This is no national liberation army but a ragbag of aggrieved Iraqis and opportunists who see Fallujah as the best place from which to have a go at the Americans. Indeed, the fact that Iraq’s apparently most ‘ruthless resistance’ is holed up in Fallujah is testament to their weakness, not strength. As one of the insurgents says: ‘We are besieged here now. It is a great emotional victory, but bad strategy. It is very easy for the Americans to come and kill us all.’ (10)

Having helped Fallujah to become a symbolic city of resistance, US forces are now pushing into the city desperately seeking a symbolic victory. There are many theories for why America is attacking now – some say it shows that President Bush always planned to follow up his re-election by ‘putting Fallujah to the torch’; others that the coalition is ‘pacifying’ Iraq in preparation for national elections in January (11). No doubt both the US presidential elections and the forthcoming Iraqi elections impacted on the timing of the Fallujah assault, but America’s overriding concern is to find, amid the postwar chaos, some kind of closure to the conflict.

Historically, imperialist armies have always had difficulty declaring and defining victories. In Iraq it has proved particularly troublesome. Bush’s declaration of an end to ‘major combat operations’ in May 2003 was widely ridiculed – not surprising when you consider that many more US troops have died since that date than died in the war before it. The coalition toppled statues of Saddam, most notably in the centre of Baghdad, in an attempt to show that they had won, but that didn’t do the trick either. Even the capture of Saddam himself led to heated disagreements about what should be done with him rather than ‘three cheers’ for the coalition. There is also the problem that coalition forces, keen to pose as liberators rather than conquerors, have shied away from using the V-word. UK prime minister Tony Blair said in April 2003 that victory should not be celebrated ‘in any spirit of elation, still less of triumphalism’ (12).

As a result, Iraq remains something of an open sore for the coalition. And the assault on Fallujah is the latest political stunt designed to provide the coalition with a sense of victory, or something like it. That is one reason why US officials talk up the invasion of Fallujah – which is, in real terms, a fairly straightforward attempt by 15,000 massively armed Americans to isolate and destroy pockets of resistance – as some kind of great, groundbreaking, historic battle. Bush describes the fight in Fallujah as being about the ‘future of Iraq’, a new war against those who want to ‘stop democracy’ (13). The attack on Fallujah is the latest version of knocking down some statues of Saddam, though with far graver consequences for those on the receiving end.

The stunt-like nature of both the coalition’s assault on Fallujah and the insurgents’ apparent defence of Fallujah is clear from the fact that the latest battle seems to have little to do with the city itself, much less with winning the support of the people who live there. Indeed, US forces have had a policy of drip-drip bombing over the past two months, in an attempt to clear Fallujah of its residents. They also dropped leaflets urging women and children to flee. The campaign was a success – it is estimated that out of 300,000 residents only 30,000 remain.

America has effectively made a stage of Fallujah, forcing thousands of civilians to flee so that it can display its commitment to the ‘future of Iraq’ and ‘democracy’ in general without causing too much bloodshed or upset. Indeed, both the Americans and the insurgents seem more interested in putting on shows for the media than in winning the hearts and minds or the backing of Fallujah residents. Coalition forces’ first target when they moved in to the city was the hospital, reportedly so that they could prevent doctors from exaggerating civilian casualties in reports to journalists (14). Meanwhile, insurgents invited Western journalists, even Americans, to ‘embed’ with them, so that ‘all the media [will] see the real face of America’ (15). As the residents are cleared out and their city turned into a stage, the coalition and the insurgents perform for the watching world.

It looks highly likely that America will win the battle of Fallujah. But when the tens of thousands of residents return to a city largely wrecked by this ‘new war’, they are unlikely to be very grateful.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Fallujah’s defiance of a New Empire, Guardian, 10 November 2004

(2) Go kick some butt and make history, Vietnam-style, US troops urged, Guardian, 9 November 2004

(3) Fallujah’s defiance of a New Empire, Guardian, 10 November 2004

(4) Muslims in Britain condemn ‘genocide’, London Evening Standard, 10 November 2004

(5) Defiant Fallujah residents taunt US forces, Associated Press, 1 April 2004

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

(7) Military officers, analysts express doubt on Fallujah, New York Times, 28 April 2004

(8) Military officers, analysts express doubt on Fallujah, New York Times, 28 April 2004

(9) ‘We are not here to liberate Iraq, we’re here to fight the infidels’, Guardian, 9 November 2004

(10) ‘We are not here to liberate Iraq, we’re here to fight the infidels’, Guardian, 9 November 2004

(11) Bush will now celebrate by putting Falluja to the torch, Guardian, 5 November 2004

(12) PM: a strategy for peace in Iraq, Downing Street, April 2003

(13) Wounded soldiers receive visit from the commander, Associated Press, 9 November 2004

(14) US forces seize Fallujah hospital, Associated Press, 8 November 2004

(15) Fallujah: the frontlines of Empire, World Crisis Web, November 2004

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Topics Politics


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