Iraq in the mirror of Fallujah

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
20 July 2005

How is the Iraq war related to the wider “war on terror”? The question is of acute political saliency to George W Bush and Tony Blair, though the pressures of domestic politics are currently pulling their answers in opposite directions.

The British prime minister and his government clearly see the London bombings as part of the broader struggle, but cannot admit any connection with the Iraq insurgency. The United States president and his administration, by contrast, is obliged by ideology and the sharp decline in domestic support for the Iraq war to see Iraq as integral to the “war on terror” begun on 11 September 2001.

The problem for both leaders is that events in Iraq itself are answering the question, and in ways that put the respective rhetoric of the two leaders under close scrutiny.

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The core issue facing the United States and its dwindling band of coalition partners in Iraq is whether the insurgency there is being or can be brought under control. Many areas in the south and east of the country remain relatively untouched by violence, while the Kurdish northeast operates as a quasi-independent political entity. But in the Sunni-majority areas north and west of Baghdad – including cities like Mosul and Kirkuk where Kurdish-Arab tensions are high – the security problems appear endemic.

The past month has seen a high level of attacks in the area often referred to as the “Sunni triangle”, with insurgents acting with increased impunity. Yet the pattern of events even over a short period is less important than the longer-term trends. In this respect three distinct sources of evidence or reporting indicate a marked deterioration in security in Iraq.

The first indicator is this week's dossier on the war's civilian casualties from IraqBodyCount and the Oxford Research Group. Their remarkably careful methodology, based on multiple sources, catalogues 24,865 civilian deaths and 42,500 civilian injuries in the first two years of the war.

The twenty-six page report's conclusion on the levels of civilian casualties since the end of the so-called "invasion phase" in April 2003 is revealing: 6,215 Iraqi civilians died in the first year after that "mission accomplished" event; 11,351 died in the second year.

The second indicator is a report from the BBC's experienced world affairs editor, John Simpson ("Iraq's Descent into Bombing Quagmire", BBC, 18 July 2005). He lists twenty-two car bombs in Baghdad alone last week; ten exploded in a single day, 15 July. Another car bomb that day in the nearby town of Musayyib killed almost 100 Shi’a Muslims.

Simpson comments that while similar peaks in the insurgency occurred in the summers of 2003 and 2004, 2005’s is higher: "the shadowy resistance movements seem to be operating on a new and much more ambitious level." This is Simpson’s eleventh visit to Iraq since May 2003 and his depressing conclusion is that "each time the security situation has been markedly worse than the time before."

Fallujah’s failed lockdown

The third indicator is recent developments in Fallujah, the “city of mosques” west of Baghdad that has endured two large-scale assaults by United States forces (in April and November 2004) in an attempt to subdue insurgency there.

The November operation – against a city seen as the heart of the insurgency, and designed to inflict irreparable damage on it – was the largest undertaken by the US in Iraq since April 2003.

A substantial assault by the US marine corps backed by heavy air power did take control of Fallujah. It was a costly “victory”. Many Iraqis were killed (the IraqBodyCount report estimates 1,874 over the two-year period); most of the 137 US troops killed and 1,400 injured across Iraq in November died in Fallujah. By the assault’s end, half the houses in the city had been destroyed and another quarter were damaged; almost every mosque, school or public building had been destroyed or damaged; the great majority of the 300,000 inhabitants had been forced to become refugees.

The Fallujah operation had very little effect on the Iraqi insurgency – within days there was an upsurge in violence elsewhere in the country, particularly Mosul (see an earlier column in this series, “No direction home”, 25 November 2004). But what is really significant is what has happened in Fallujah since November.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here.

Fallujah should be the most secure city in Iraq. The United States has assigned a force of 4,300 marines to the Fallujah area; they are supplemented by 800 Iraqi paramilitary troops, 2,800 Iraqi army soldiers, and the regular Iraqi police. There is a nightly curfew, and six carefully controlled entry and exit routes to and from the city, where citizens must show identity papers and undergo a search.

In these circumstances, it is extraordinary that the insurgents are staging a comeback (Edward Wong, "8 Months after US-Led Siege, Insurgents Rise Again in Fallujah", New York Times, 15 July 2005). Car bombs are actually being assembled within the city; of the four detonated in the area in recent weeks, one killed six US troops, and another narrowly missed assassinating the Iraqi paramilitary force commander, Mehdi Sabeeh Hashim. Of the five police forts built in Fallujah, two have already been firebombed.

The violence has also impacted at the local political level. Three of the twenty-one members of the new city council have resigned, and a fourth has stopped attending meetings after a car-bomb attack on his house. Even permanent "lockdown" – with one police officer, Iraqi soldier or US marine for every twelve inhabitants – cannot, it seems, contain the Fallujah insurgency.

The combination of the Fallujah experience and the longer-term evidence from IraqBodyCount and the BBC is sobering. The Iraqi insurgency is not under control, nearly two and a half years after the start of the war. A significant shift of language, even in official circles, reflects this: few now talk about a “three-week war” followed by “a period of disorder”. Iraq is now widely seen as an ongoing war, begun in March 2003, whose end is not in sight. Whether domestic political calculations see it as integral to (Bush) or separate from (Blair) the “war on terror”, Iraq is an issue that will not go away.

Further Links:

Electronic Iraq

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