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Learning from Fallujah's agony

About the author
Scilla Elworthy is the founder of Peace Direct to fund, promote and learn from peace-builders in conflict areas, and the Oxford Research Group to develop effective dialogue between nuclear weapons policy-makers worldwide and their critics

Here are two appraisals of what happened in the besieged Iraqi city of Fallujah one year ago, in the assault by United States military forces that began on 8 November 2005:

“Fallujah … is now 70% estimated to be bombed to the ground, no water, no electricity … People inside the city are referring to it as a big jail. It is a horrendous situation, and we still have hundreds of thousands of refugees as a result. And the goal of besieging Fallujah as announced by the US military was to capture the phantom Zarqawi and to bring security and stability for the elections, and what's left is a situation where Fallujah is in shambles, and the resistance has spread throughout the country.” (Dahr Jamail, a US citizen who spent many months in Iraq as one of the only independent, un-embedded journalists there; interviewed by the radio station Democracy Now!, 28 April 2005)

“Most of the generals and politicians did not think through the consequences of compelling American soldiers with no knowledge of Arabic or Arab culture to implement intrusive measures inside an Islamic society. We arrested people in front of their families, dragging them away in handcuffs with bags over their heads, and then provided no information to the families of those we incarcerated. In the end, our soldiers killed, maimed and incarcerated thousands of Arabs, 90% of whom were not the enemy. But they are now.” (Colonel Douglas A. Macgregor [retired], in “Dramatic failures require drastic changes", St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 19 December 2004).

How did this state of affairs, massively damaging to both the people of Fallujah and to the occupying forces, come about? What other approaches could have been used? What can people who seek to prevent this human suffering and its creation of a cycle of bitterness do? And what does this experience tell us about 21st-century warfare?

Scilla Elworthy is the founder of Peace Direct. In 2003 she was awarded the Niwano Peace Prize. She is the author of the case study Fallujah: Lessons Identified April 2003 –April 2005.

Also by Scilla Elworthy in openDemocracy:

9/11: what should we do now?” (October 2001)

Iraq: a way out?” (January 2003)

Peacemaking at the sharp end: Iraq before and after war” (March 2004)

Tackling terror by winning hearts and minds” (July 2005)

For a more detailed analysis of Scilla Elworthy’s argument in this article, see her report Learning from Fallujah (November 2005)

Every insurgency is unique, but it will have the same anatomy of leaders, fighters, and population bases. Fallujah did contain leaders of strict, ideologically motivated Wahhabi Muslim outlook even before the war started in March 2003 who may have wanted to provoke exactly the violent response they got from the United States. But many of the fighters who confronted the Americans were hired by the day, and had financial rather than political motives. The key to a different strategy would have been to isolate those leaders from their support-base in the population; instead, the actions taken by the US military consolidated the leaders’ hold over much of the population.

Fallujah was relatively calm until, in April 2003, the US military took over a primary school in Fallujah as its headquarters. There surely were good operational reasons for this, but they were not negotiated with those – teachers, parents, relatives, pupils – who had an interest in the school. When members of these groups demonstrated peacefully outside the school, they were fired on, and twenty people were killed. This was the beginning of militancy in Fallujah.

The lesson? Respectful dialogue over the use of the school might have prevented the demonstration; an apology for the deaths of innocent civilians could have begun a process of trust-building between the forces and the civic leaders in Fallujah.

Over the following year, attitudes hardened as a result of the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib (fewer than fifty kilometres away) and humiliating experiences at the hands of US troops. By March 2004, an ABC News poll found that while 42% of Iraqis felt the war had liberated Iraq, 41% felt it had humiliated Iraq.

The lesson? An approach that worked well in the divided, volatile town of Kirkuk in northern Iraq could have helped at this stage in Fallujah. In Kirkuk a Centre of Listening and Documentation was set up, responsible for recording human-rights abuses, helping people trace relatives in detention, and gain redress; it worked because it showed concern for the Iraqi people and provided a safety-valve for their concerns.

In March 2004, the killing of four US contractors, and the brutal treatment of their corpses, tightened the screw further. The attack came after escalating violence aimed at foreign nationals in the city in the first quarter of 2004. The US responded in April by sealing off Fallujah, imposing a curfew and mounting a full-scale assault that included destroying the city’s only hospital.

Lieutenant-Colonel Brennan Byrne gave the US perspective: “This is not retribution. This is about making the city liveable so people don’t have to live in fear of the thugs who have taken over the city … This city has long been a … dumping ground for foreign fighters and bad guys...” Unfortunately the effect was to draw precisely these people into Fallujah, which was seen as the place to fight the US.

Also on Fallujah’s two sieges and their fallout in openDemocracy:

Jo Wilding, “Inside the fire” (April 2004)

Jo Wilding, “The second trip to Fallujah and the courteous kidnappers” (April 2004)

Paul Rogers, “Fallujah fallout” (November 2004)

Dahr Jamail, “Fallujah slaughter, Baghdad anger” (November 2004)

Paul Rogers, “Iraq in the mirror of Fallujah” (July 2005)

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The lesson? The US reaction appears to have been driven more from the White House than military decision-makers on the ground. With more freedom to take decisions at field level, the British response to the killing of six military policemen near Basra in June 2003 was very different. There was a conscious choice not to go in heavily to find the perpetrators, and risk killing numerous civilians, but rather to work with civic leaders to find the perpetrators over a longer period of time. This, though, had its downside – the perpetrators were heard boasting in the souks that they had got away with the killings.

The April assault turned many more Iraqis against the occupation. “Four American people were killed in Fallujah”, said Omar Farouk, owner of a convenience store. “Because of that, 500 people were killed in Fallujah. The message of the Americans is ‘we have the power’. Iraqis will never accept that.”

A different path

Throughout the summer and autumn of 2004 – as tracked by Paul Rogers in his weekly openDemocracy column and his monthly Oxford Research Group briefing – the US military launched air-strikes on the city, targeting houses used by the group of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. At the same time, there were many attempts to negotiate, though often the negotiations were with the “wrong” people in Fallujah – those who didn’t have the power to deliver a settlement.

The lesson? One of the senior religious leaders in Iraq was willing to go in to negotiate for peace, as Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had done in Najaf, and this had the support of many key Americans. But it would have taken far longer than the Americans wanted. With the Iraqi election timetable, the perception was that Fallujah was the last trouble-spot that needed to be ‘sorted out’.

With no time to take the path of negotiation, the coalition forces planned a “final” assault in November 2004 – “Operation Phantom Fury” – with US troops in the lead and British troops moving from the south to give cover. The US decided to subdue the city by force, closing all roads and putting it under total siege, as insurgents carried out car bomb attacks, killing Iraqi army and police, US army and Iraqi civilians.

The lesson? An alternative strategy, with the potential for fewer deaths and less destruction, would have been to besiege the city, and use targeted patrols based on intelligence to find and engage the insurgents.

It is easy to be wise after the event. But some further, overall lessons are worth learning for any military operation in the future:

  • It is foolhardy to engage on an invasion of this kind without the language skills and cultural understanding to collect and use intelligence in order to bring civic leaders “on side”
  • An invasion promoted as “liberation” needs to treat the liberated population with the same respect that would be shown to people in the home country
  • The ability to use overwhelming force is dangerous; soldiers at all levels need to be challenged to use the minimum necessary force at all times
  • All of the above have deep implications for the kind of people recruited into the military and the way they are trained.


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