Thursday, October 22, 2009
Fallujah by James Hider
From the very start of the occupation, Fallujah had been the epicentre of the incipient insurgency. Its citizens proudly called their hometown the City of Mosques, a description that made it sound much grander than it was. Sure, there were plenty of shiny mosques (or at least, they had been shiny before the mortars and machine guns chewed up their minarets until they looked like used toothpicks). But otherwise it was a run-down, forbidding den of haughty and staunchly religious tribesmen, perched on an ancient smuggling route from Jordan to Baghdad. It was a city steeped in tribal honor, with all the brutality and human suffering that entailed. The men of Fallujah, I was told, would pull their guns on each other for trying to jump a petrol queue. Proud and devout, with a hair-trigger response to any slight upon their manhood, the city's population of 300,000 was entangled in a web of centuries-old blood feuds into which the American army- the largest and newest tribe on the block- had stumbled.
The men of the city had a frightening disregard for the fighting capacities of their occupiers, matched only by a flagrant indifference to their own deaths. Their fate was in Allah's hands: their task was to defend only their honor and their families, in that order. Fallujah had often been described as a hotbed of support for Saddam. Closer to the truth was that even Saddam had been wary of these ferociously insular desert berserkers and had co-opted them into his Republican Guard regiments, subscribing to the old adage that you should keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
The buildings were the same washed-out non-color as the dusty flat-lands that limped off to the horizon, as though one of the seasonal dust storms had long ago been frozen by some capricious djinn into the shapes of houses and streets. The merchants' homes were walled mini-fortresses, or sprawling neo-Babylonian displays of gaudy opulence, with every possible combination of stone colonnade, Swiss gable and Roman palisade available to the kitsch-loving ranks of Iraqi sheikhdom...The last time I had plucked up the courage to walk through the market in Fallujah, while on a trip there a couple of months before, a small boy had called out to me. 'Mister, Mister.' When I looked at him he mimed firing an imaginary RPG at my face. I smiled nervously and walked quickly back to my car, the market stallholders staring at me impassively as I left. At few weeks after that, a group of American security contractors working for the firm were ambushed by local clansmen, raked with machine-gun bullets and blown up by rocket fire. Then a howling, capering mob came out and beat the burning bodies with sticks, tied them with string to the rear bumpers of cars and dragged then down Fallujah's main street, to a steel girder bridge built by the British in the 1940s....
Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne, commander of the First Battalion, Fifth Regiment of the U.S. Marine Corps ordered his men to shave off the wispy moustaches they had been told to grow as a token of respect for the local tribesmen and launched a large-scale 'cordon and knock' sweep of the city for the killers. Almost instantly they ran into a well-prepared guerrilla force. Lulu, who was with the marines, was pinned down by rocket and machine gun fire with her embed unit and had to be extracted by armoured vehicles. She phoned me in my Baghdad hotel room the same night and told me to get down to Fallujah as quickly as possible.
Unlikely as it had seemed even a week before it happened, the American military had lost control of the main highway leading west from Baghdad to Jordan. Right on the outskirts of the occupied capital, gunman pinned down US supply convoys with roadside bombs and rocket attacks, the terrified ex-military drivers hunkered by their stalled 18-wheelers, clutching carbines and waiting to be kidnapped or killed. The sinews of the occupation were snapping fast... It took a week of badgering the marines before the agreed to fly me and a few other journalists to the fighting...
Colonel Byrne was becoming increasingly frustrated that his assault was going nowhere in those early days of April. He knew his men could take the city, if he was just given clear instructions to do so. But the instructions never came. Instead, the marine commanders, who had initially advised against Washington's determination to invade the city, knowing what a bloody price would be paid, were ordered to pull back and train a local force of ex-army officers from Fallujah to police the city. It was a disastrous decision. The Fallujah Protective Force, as it was known, turned out to be little more than he same guerrillas the marines had just spent the month trying to defeat. And the Mujahedin, gloating at the withdrawal of their seemingly unstoppable foe, declared a miraculous victory for Allah.
If it was a stinging climbdown for Byrne and his men, it was much, much worse for the people of Fallujah. The real nightmare was just beginning for them, as their city became a mini-Taliban state of beheadings, beatings and summary executions. Fallujah also quickly became the Detroit of car bombs, with the workshops of the industrial quarter once again put to use in churning out explosive-rigged vehicles destined for the Shia markets just up the road in Baghdad.