How Iraq's resistance stood up to the U.S.
May 7, 2004 | Pages 6 and 7
ERIC RUDER looks at the roots of the resistance that forced the U.S. Marines to retreat from Falluja.
THROUGHOUT THE month of April, the U.S. Marines tried to teach Falluja a lesson. But in early May, they were forced to withdraw, dealing the U.S. its largest setback since the war began last March.
The celebrations began immediately. "As the militiamen drove through Falluja in trucks and congregated on deserted street corners, residents flashed V-for-victory signs, and mosques broadcast celebratory messages proclaiming triumph over the Americans," reported the Washington Post.
"We won!" Abu Abdullah, one of the jubilant resistance fighters, told a reporter. "We didn't want the Americans to enter the city, and we succeeded."
Last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pinned the blame for the resistance in Falluja on "a bunch of terrorists" and "former regime elements." But the people of Falluja have good reason to want to keep the U.S. out.
Since the beginning of the U.S. war on Iraq more than a year ago, Falluja--a town of 300,000 west of Baghdad--has been the site of a string of atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers. One of the first massacres of unarmed Iraqi demonstrators took place in Falluja--on April 28 of last year, just days after the fall of Baghdad.
The U.S. skipped over Falluja during its mad dash to Baghdad in the early days of the ground war, but the city was hammered during Operation Shock and Awe--the air assault at the war's beginning that was designed to terrorize Iraqis into submission. This provoked memories of the 1991 Gulf War--when a British warplane dropped a bomb on a crowded market in Falluja, killing 150 people.
So when soldiers of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne entered Falluja on April 23 of last year, bitter resentment at the terror bombing pulsed through the city. Five days later, about 150 people gathered for a demonstration to call on U.S. soldiers to leave.
"No to Saddam! No to the U.S.!" chanted the crowd. U.S. troops forced the unarmed demonstration to disperse, but it later regrouped and marched toward a school near the city's Baath Party headquarters--which U.S. forces were using as their base of operations.
Then, without warning, automatic gunfire ripped through the night sky. Within minutes, 17 Iraqis lay dead, and 70 more were wounded.
Mutaz Fahd al-Dulaimi, one of the demonstrators, saw his cousin get shot. "There was no shooting, and they suddenly started shooting at us," said al-Dulaimi. "There were four [U.S. soldiers] on the roof--I saw them with my own eyes. There was a heavy machine gun. It was shooting on full automatic for 10 minutes. Some of the people fell to the ground. When they stood up, they shot again."
Lt. Col. Eric Nantz claimed that his troops had responded with "precision" force when some demonstrators wielding AK-47s opened fire on them. But a Human Rights Watch report found that buildings behind the crowd of demonstrators "had extensive evidence of multi-caliber bullet impacts that were wider and more sustained than would have been caused by the 'precision fire' with which the soldiers maintain they responded, leading to the civilian casualties that day."
Two days later, the scene was repeated when a U.S. military convoy opened fire on another unarmed demonstration, killing three and wounding 16. This brutality explains why Falluja has been a center of the Iraqi resistance--a war fought by Iraqis themselves, not "foreign terrorists" or a handful of "Saddam loyalists."
In March 2004, the 82nd Airborne was again assigned the task of patrolling Falluja. But U.S. commanders had pulled back to the relative safety of fortified positions on the city's outskirts, carrying out only sporadic patrols of the city--whose narrow, twisting streets give perfect cover for increasingly experienced and effective guerrilla fighters.
When the Marines took over later in the month, they figured that the time had come to reassert their dominance. Over the course of a few weeks, Marines and resistance fighters engaged in a series of escalating confrontations.
On March 31, four American mercenaries were killed, and an angry crowd vented its rage by burning their bodies and hanging them from a bridge. The Marines didn't hesitate to take their revenge--in the form of Operation Vigilant Resolve, an assault so vicious that even British military officers and Washington's Iraqi collaborators denounced it as "heavy-handed" and "collective punishment."
Iraqis across the country now refer to the April massacres in Falluja as "our Jenin"--a reference to the Israeli massacre in that West Bank town two years ago. But though the U.S. assault borrowed many Israeli methods, the attack on Falluja outdid the horrors inflicted on Jenin.
During a two-week killing spree, U.S. forces laid siege to the city, sealing it off with barbed wire and tanks--while using Apache helicopter gunships and artillery to demolish hundreds of homes, several mosques and many other buildings. "Many families, emerging from their homes for the first time in days, buried slain relatives in the city football stadium," according to an Associated Press report after the first ceasefire was declared.
The number of dead and wounded was obscene. "I can say more than 600 have been killed, but the number may not be correct, as many families have already buried their dead in their gardens," Dr. Rafa Hayd al-Issawim, director of Falluja's hospital, told the Al Jazeera news service. Many different figures are available, but between 300 and 450 of the dead were women and children. Another 1,200 were wounded.
U.S. military officials figured that this ruthlessness would prove to Iraqis that resistance is futile. But instead, the killing spree only turned Falluja into a symbol of U.S. brutality--and stiffened the resolve of resistance fighters throughout Iraq.
The U.S. retreat from Falluja last week--combined with the pictures of Iraqi prisoners tortured by American soldiers that were broadcast throughout the Middle East--spells disaster for Washington's effort to win supporters among Iraqis. Perhaps even more troubling to U.S. military officials, the Falluja resistance has shown that it's possible to slice a finger off the iron fist of the U.S. military.
Iraq's new flag "for traitors"
THE IRAQI Governing Council (IGC) unfurled a new national flag last week to signal the post-Saddam Hussein era. But instead, the new flag illustrates just how out of touch the council is.
Not only does the flag abandon the red, white and black colors of the old flag, but its new blue stripes and white background--in the eyes of many Iraqis--bear a strong resemblance to the Israeli flag.
The blue stripes are supposed to represent the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, but there's also a yellow strip between them representing the Kurds. In other words, only the pro-U.S. of the three main ethnic groups in Iraq--Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis--gets a stripe in the new flag.
"What gives these people the right to throw away our flag, to change the symbol of Iraq?" Salah, a building contractor, told a reporter. "I will not regard the new flag as representing me, but only traitors and collaborators."
The final insult is that the flag's designer, Rifat Chadirji, doesn't even live in Iraq, but in London. And he turns out to be the brother of Nassir al-Chaderchi, chair of the committee charged with choosing a new flag for Iraq.