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Fallujah Aflame: Remembering The Bloodiest Battle Of The Iraq War



The American invasion of Iraq met its toughest battlefield in the campaign twenty years ago this month (April), when insurgents took the city of Fallujah after a bloody battle and held it for seven months until an even bloodier American conquest.

Similarly to the Palestinian city Gaza in the period since, Fallujah in that period came to symbolize the tragedy of foreign intervention in the region and the spirit of local resistance. Its rise and fall marked both the climax and a turning point in the Iraq war: before its fall, the Iraqi insurgency had the occupation on the ropes; afterward, Iraq steadily descended into a mire of sectarian bloodshed that ensured the occupation of Iraq would last far longer.


Iraq in the last decade has in large part seen a power struggle between the beneficiaries of the 2003 invasion – Iran, claiming “Islamic resistance” against the “Great Satan” after riding to Baghdad’s corridors of power on American tanks, and the United States, who did the grunt work of the invasion. A third major element, the extremist Daesh group that grew out of the invasion, has now been virtually wiped out, but so too has the role of pre-Daesh resistance, which fought the Americans to a near-standstill in the occupation’s early years, been almost erased.

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In imposing an ethnosectarian parliamentary regime, the United States split Iraq into a patchwork of Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, and Kurds. From these three supposedly homogenous blocs, the pro-Israel neoconservatives then so influential in Washington synonymized the Baath regime with a historically central Sunni Arab community – ignoring how the secularist Baath had originally emerged among non-Sunni Arabs and how even Saddam Hussein, whose regime recruited heavily from his Sunni hometown of Tikrit, crushed any number of Sunni Arab rivals. Sunni Arabs were especially well-represented in the military, a rival of the Baath party since the 1960s that Saddam was determined to tame: thus by the 1990s various Sunni Arab opposition, both backed by Washington and independent, were repeatedly crushed by the Baath regime just as it had crushed Shia and Kurdish rivals. Two are relevant: in 1996, an American-backed coup attempt, linked to an exiled former Baathist Iyad Allawi and led by Abdullah Shahwani, a defecting commando, and cavalry corps commander Abdul-Qadir Jasim, failed. The previous year, Saddam had quashed a tribal revolt in the western province Anbar.

A mixture of riverine towns and yawning desert, it was Anbar that quickly became the centerpiece of the insurgency against the Americans. Its autonomous, well-armed Arab clans, whose links reached far beyond Iraq’s borders, resented the brutality of the American clampdown and quickly formed insurgent networks whose logistics ran into neighboring Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Along with border towns Qaim and Husaiba and provincial capital Ramadi, Falluja became a key insurgent hub, perched on the Euphrates at the province’s east not far off Baghdad. Known as the city of mosques, its preachers openly castigated the occupation.

The Americans preferred to paint the insurgents as either Baathist desperadoes loyal to an ousted dictator or extremists epitomized by the Jordanian militant Fadil Zarqawi, whose brutal sectarianism and talent for headline-grabbing suicide attacks had only been amplified by American propaganda. A snapshot of the insurgency at Anbar, however, shows a far wider array. There were irate clansmen, Sufi networks, Salafi networks, border smugglers, Sunni Islamist militants, officers of the disbanded Iraqi army, Baathists, and in many cases combinations of the above. Even many officials, including successively sacked provincial police chiefs in Anbar, tacitly supported the insurgency. While veterans of the ousted Baath regime played a key fundraising role, the party’s actual role was minor; even many of its adherents emphasized their commitment to Islam, which along with clan honor and Iraqi patriotism was a central focus of the insurgency.

The Ulama Association, an umbrella group of Sunni scholars who opposed the occupation, was the closest that the insurgency had to formal representation: its leader Harith Dari had a son, Muthanna, in the insurgency. Insurgent “factions”, with names like “Islamic Army” and “Mujahideen Army”, were often formally led by a spokesperson, but in practice relied on highly diffuse networks of local insurgents with little central control. The main exceptions to this lack of central control were the shrinking remnants of the Baath party; Zarqawi’s originally small group, which would grow and posthumously turn into Daesh; and Ansarul-Sunnah, an originally Kurdish Salafi militia that unsuccessfully competed with Zarqawi for Al-Qaeda support but also expanded into Arab-majority regions to oppose the occupation. At this stage, none of these three groups had a particularly strong presence in Anbar.

The Climax of Resistance

It was the Issawi clansmen of a recently imprisoned tribal leader, Barakat Saadoun, at Falluja who brought the Iraq war to its climax in spring 2004 when they killed several mercenaries on which the American defense department, under the euphemistic moniker of “contractors”, was increasingly reliant. Enraged, the Americans determined to make an example: they called in the crack praetorian marines, led by the ruthless James Mattis, and assaulted the city indiscriminately for a month against surprisingly fierce resistance. Leading the insurgents was Omar Hadid, a former electrician, supported by preachers Abdullah Janabi and Zafir Subhi. Other insurgents from in and around the city hurried to join the fray: they included fronts led by pietistic doctor Yasin Assaf; Abed Nayel, a career soldier from the Khalifawi clan; Muhannad Ulayyan, the son of a prominent Khalifawi leader, Khalaf; and Baathist notable Nuri Zibar. Contrary to American propaganda, which breathlessly speculated on which neighborhood might be housing Zarqawi, the Jordanian commander was not even in Falluja, though his aides Omar Jumaa, a Palestinian preacher, and Abdullah Jawari were present.


War torn in Iraq (PC: Levi Meir Clancy [unsplash])

The American assault provoked an uproar. So packed was Fallujah with dead that its football stadium was repurposed as a graveyard. While Washington originally tried to castigate media, such as Qatar’s state broadcaster, for its unflattering accuracy toward American operations, it soon became clear that the attack was neither politically nor militarily feasible. Even as the battle raged, insurgents in other parts of Anbar launched attacks to divert the Americans. At Husaiba, the entire police force defected to join insurgents Riad Matloub and Ghanim Hashim, who had unified border networks into a militant front. At Ramadi, Islamic academic Mahmoud Latif and local enforcer Muhammad Dahham founded an influential front that attacked the occupation forces head-on. Politically, the attack was equally unsustainable: in Baghdad, United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and several members of the American-installed junta threatened to resign. Eventually, to the disgust of an unrepentant Mattis, the attackers had to withdraw, leaving about two hundred insurgents and thrice that number of civilians slain.

Falluja became something of an anomaly in the occupation: a large city not far from the capital openly controlled by the insurgents. A council was set up by preachers Abdullah Janabi and Zafir Subhi, with Hadid as its commander. The flailing government turned to pro-American Sunni leaders, such as the 1996 coup veteran Abdullah Shahwani – now promoted to spymaster – to negotiate. Shahwani secured an agreement from the insurgents to put a militia in the city, yet the government balked at the alleged Baath history of its commander, Jasim Habib, and eventually the militia, dissipated into the insurgency.

Elsewhere in Iraq, other opponents of the occupation were emboldened: notably Muqtada Sadr, the populist Shia cleric, supported the Sunni insurgents and threatened to take Najaf, a city sacred to Shias. This surprised the neoconservatives, who had expected the Shia population to greet them as liberators and thus be weaned off any Iranian sympathy. By the end of spring 2004, the occupation was at its flimsiest: not only was Falluja lost and Najaf under threat, but interim prime minister Izzuddin Salim was assassinated, and publicized evidence of grisly mass torture by the Americans further inflamed the situation. Expeditionary commander Ricardo Sanchez gloomily highlighted a joint Sunni-Shia resistance as the occupation’s biggest threat.

Within Anbar, governor Abdul-Karim Barjas was forced to resign and disavow the occupation after his sons were abducted. Hadid, the Falluja commander, set about imposing control – at one point executing the pro-American commander of a paramilitary unit, Sulaiman Marawi. But in political terms, the insurgents dramatically failed to capitalize amid suspicion and factionalism. Contrary to American claims that he had masterminded the Falluja insurgency, Zarqawi’s local lieutenant, Jawari, was expelled by the Islamists on the council. Suspicion also abounded around former Baathists: a purportedly religious group founded by Muayyad Aziz, a clansman of Saddam, never managed to dispel suspicions about where its loyalty lay. The Ulama Association, whose member Fakhri Qaisi also joined the council, was unable to steer the insurgents, especially when forced to distinguish between “honorable resistance” and the frequent brutalism employed elsewhere by Zarqawi, who seemed to view the American occupation as a footnote in a total war with the Shias. Even Al-Qaeda, who formally embraced Zarqawi as its local representative in the autumn, was uneasy about his sectarianism, vainly urging him to focus on the occupation. This sectarianism was one reason that the joint Sunni-Shia resistance feared by Sanchez never materialized.

The Shia senior establishment, such as Shia cleric Ali Sistani who persuaded the hotheaded Sadr to stand down at Najaf, helped the Americans salvage the situation: so, ironically, did the pro-Iran factions. The Dawa and Badr political-military networks – patronized by Tehran since the 1980s – threw their weight behind the occupation, correctly judging that, as the most established pro-occupation political parties, they would be able to win the forthcoming election. But Sunni collaborators, vainly trying to get a piece of the election pie and often aided by Jordan, hardly helped: many supported interim ruler Iyad Allawi simply because he opposed Iran – even though, with a longstanding relationship with American intelligence, he favored a heavy-handed crackdown on Fallujah. Similarly, the paramilitary groups that would later become coopted by Shia militias were actually founded by Allawi’s Sunni lieutenants, interior minister Falah Naqib, and his uncle Adnan Thabit, another veteran of the 1996 coup. When insurgents attacked large cities such as Mosul and Samarra in autumn 2004, it was collaborators such as Naqib and Thabit who provided the Americans with key support against other Sunnis, wrongly expecting that they would benefit; instead, the pro-Iran Badr and Dawa militias would reap the rewards.

Not a week after having won a hard-fought election wherein his Iraq conduct was a major issue, Bush called in a full-scale assault on Fallujah, now led by Richard Natonski. The resultant battle was the most brutal round of warfare for the Americans since Vietnam. Along with massive bombardment, the attackers plowed into the city and engaged in ferocious streetfighting that even dwarfed the spring campaign. They were supported by Abdul-Qadir, the 1996 coup commander, and Kurdish commander Fadil Barwari. In the six weeks’ combat, over a hundred attackers – mostly Americans, for whom such a body count was highly unusual – were killed, as were perhaps over two thousand Iraqis. Among the slain were Hadid and Ansarul-Sunnah commander Hemin Saleem; Muayyad was captured, while the rival Abdullahs Janabi and Jawari made good their escape. Still more galling than the slaughter, was the biological legacy of American weaponry: since then, birth defects have spiralled among Fallujan children.

Turning Point

The downfall of Fallujah marked a turning point in the Iraq war. In the first place, it gave the occupation government a breathing space to hold elections in 2005 and set up a constitution that would institutionalize ethnosectarian politics. The first such election was widely boycotted by Sunni Arabs, but when the Dawa and Badr parties benefited a number of Sunni leaders, including former insurgents, scrambled to reconcile in order to participate in the second. In so doing they drained the insurgency and essentially bought into the same framework that the occupation had imposed. The fact that many Sunni Arabs were willing to ignore Allawi’s role in the sack of Falluja and support him as an anti-Iran candidate summarized both the limits of the official framework and the political failure of their leadership.

But the alternatives were hardly appealing. Over the course of 2005, pro-Iran militiamen increasingly dominated the American-installed security and engaged in relentless abuses, including torture and murder, against Sunnis. On the other hand, Zarqawi plunged into a series of bloody suicide attacks on Shia civilians, each killing scores of people. This vicious cycle of sectarian violence by state-enabled Shia militias – including even Sadr, whose largely urban underclass of followers proceeded to expel, loot, and murder Sunnis in Baghdad – on one side, and anti-state Sunni militias on the other, saw the Iraq war slip from a straightforward case of resistance to a bloody sectarian war.

Against this backdrop, many Anbar insurgents, like the Islamists Latif, Zafir, and Yasin retired from the maquis. Others, out of opportunism or desperation, switched sides, fighting former comrades in return for autonomy and formal representation: these included Mahlawi chieftain Sabah Sattam, who switched sides immediately after fleeing Falluja to set up a border militia, and Issawi chieftain Barakat’s brother Aifan Saadoun. Khalaf Ulayyan, the Khalifawi leader whose son Muhannad remained in the insurgency around Falluja, himself accepted senior office, as did the new assembly speaker Mahmoud Mashhadani, a former insurgent ideologue, in a futile attempt to negotiate a withdrawal. These defectors had an uneasy relationship with pro-American leaders of Sunni background such as Abdul-Qadir, who was rewarded for his role at Falluja with the defense ministership.

Yet while they played a key role in stamping out the insurgency by the end of the 2000s, the defectors – condescendingly named a Sunni “Awakening” by their American beneficiaries – had no solid guarantees from either the Americans or an openly sectarian regime whose enemies they had helped eliminate and which had no incentive to support them once they had outlived their use. The fallout would reverberate into the 2010s with the return and growth of the group Zarqawi had founded, now rebranded into a self-styled caliphate as Daesh, who would return, along with a rejuvenated Abdullah Janabi and a Sunni militant coalition, to the city in 2014.

The aftermath of the Fallujah campaign, then, was a dispiriting one, Iraq sliding into a vicious sectarianism that increasingly offered a stark choice between millenarian violence and obeisance to one of the camps – the United States and Iran – who had played so integral a role in the actual invasion. Where the occupation had been on the ropes, its structures now pervaded, and continue to pervade, the country that it had occupied. Yet for a few heady months in 2004, the city of mosques – not opportunistic or bloodthirsty leaders, but the courageous and faithful men of Anbar – had given an illegal occupation the fright of its life.



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Ibrahim Moiz is a student of international relations and history. He received his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto where he also conducted research on conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has written for both academia and media on politics and political actors in the Muslim world.

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