Iraq

AFTER THE SIEGE

Falluja insurgents see the U.S. withdrawal as an admission of defeat

ADNAN R. KHAN May 17 2004
Iraq

AFTER THE SIEGE

Falluja insurgents see the U.S. withdrawal as an admission of defeat

ADNAN R. KHAN May 17 2004

AFTER THE SIEGE

Falluja insurgents see the U.S. withdrawal as an admission of defeat

ADNAN R. KHAN

For a month, American forces laid siege to Falluja in an attempt to put down a Sunni insurgency. Under a negotiated settlement, U.S. troops began to pull back on April 30, having agreed that Iraqi forces would assume control of the city. Maclean’s Contributing Editor Adnan R. Khan was in the shattered city last week. He filed this report.

THE CITY OF MOSQUES. Falluja was famous for them—a town of 200,000 people bristling with intricately designed minarets and domes, its dust-laden air filled five times a day with the muezzins’ haunting call to prayer. But over the past month many minarets have been shattered by bombs, while the muezzins’ call has been drowned out by automatic weapons and artillery fire. In a mere 26 days, the City of Mosques has been transformed into the City of the Dead, a victim of the worst round of fighting Iraq has seen since the war was officially declared over last May. The number of casualties is still unknown, but there is no doubt about the level of devastation. And it’s in the Joulan neighbourhood where the smell of death is most pungent. Buried deep beneath the rubble are some of the victims of the month-long siege of Falluja—men, women and children who were not able to escape the onslaught.

Falluja is a city crumbling from the outside in, parts of its densely populated suburbs flattened, its outskirts shattered. Joulan was the front line in the month-long battle between U.S. forces and Sunni insurgents, a neighbourhood of flat-roofed homes and crowded markets on the edge of town, directly across from U.S. military positions at the dilapidated train station. The most intense battles raged here, as shells from Apache attack helicopters and Abrams M1A1 tanks rained down on the residents. Now, in its narrow, dusty alleyways, dejected men and women sift through the remains of their homes, gathering up what little they have left. Wrecked cars teeter on concrete walls, jettisoned there by the sheer force of American firepower.

Khalaf Hamid Jassan al-Alawi, 65, and his 10 sons have come home for the first time since the battle for Falluja began on April 4. They were lucky to have escaped early, luckier still to have been away when their house was pummelled into rubble by two heavy artillery shells. Khalaf takes me on a tour of his gutted house, climbing gingerly over piles of stone and concrete, broken glass and twisted metal. He shows me the baby’s room, where, miraculously, the cradle escaped damage. One of his sons gathers it up and takes it out to the truck. “We had no idea it would be like this,” Khalaf says. “We had no news of our house before we came here. Look what’s left—we don’t know what we’re going to do.” Sunlight pours through the gaping hole in the roof where a shell burst through. “Is this American freedom?” one of Khalaf’s sons asks.

It’s a question many Fallujans are asking these days. But with the siege lifted, at least for the time being, and American forces re-positioned out of sight, residents are also wondering what will come next. Few think the violence is over for good, least of all the city’s mujahedeen fighters, who have stowed away their weapons and melted in with the locals.

Only a handful are willing to talk, but when they do, it’s with defiance. “This is a great victory for the people of Iraq,” says Abbas al-Azawi, a 45-year-old fighter who has retreated from Joulan to his family home in Falluja’s relatively quiet town centre. “But we are not fooled by the Americans. They say they have left but we still see them prowling outside of town. We are ready to continue the fight any time.” For Abbas, there is only one solution that will end the conflict once and for all—the complete and permanent withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. “They don’t understand our ways,” he argues. “They look down on us. That is the first problem. They come into our homes acting like kings. That is no way to win our respect. We can never accept people like that in our city.”

With Falluja now under the control of Iraqis, Abbas is optimistic about the future. On May 4, the first batch of domestic troops, the Falluja Brigade, arrived amid cheers and fanfare. Abbas says that, in general, the mujahedeen are happy about the arrival of these soldiers, led by a formerly exiled Iraqi intelligence officer. “The mujahedeen and the Falluja Brigade are brothers,” he says. “We are all from al-Anbar province; we will never fight each other.”

When the Iraqi convoy of 100 cars, trucks and buses rolled into town, my Iraqi translator, who is also from al-Anbar, the province at the heart of the Sunni triangle where Saddam loyalists are concentrated, nervously mumbled that the Americans may have shot themselves in the foot. The soldiers, waving Saddam-era Iraqi flags and wearing the same uniforms they wore when they fought coalition forces during the invasion last year, made it abundantly clear where their loyalties lie. “They told us to change our uniforms,” one soldier said, “but we refused. We are not with the Americans. We are Iraqi fighters.”

FEW think the fighting is over, least of all the rebels, who have stowed their weapons and melted in with the locals

The Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, the newly formed national guard, is also building up a disturbing reputation for turning on their American allies in the fight against insurgents. According to one ICDC soldier in Falluja, the arrival of the Falluja Brigade amounts to an American defeat. “We see our people coming in,” he said, clapping hands with other jubilant soldiers. “It’s better than the Americans being here—they lost, they should leave.”

U.S. military commanders have characterized their withdrawal as a unilateral disengagement that will only last as long as calm prevails. So far, it has. And the interlude has given locals an opportunity to begin reclaiming their city. It’s a horrifying task: cemeteries are full; bodies are now being taken to the town’s soccer stadium where, according to the custodian, up to 800 have been buried. “We have about 10 to 20 burials a day,” he says, adding that a backhoe has been brought in to dig trenches for the dead.

In the town’s mosques, imams and worshippers are spending more time cleaning up rubble than worshipping. “This is how we show our devotion to God now,” says Hatham Ibrahim Anael, a 44-year-old resident of the Joulan neighbourhood. With a steady cry of “Allahu Akbar”—God is great—he and a small group begin the difficult task of clearing the al-Mahathidi mosque. The minaret, a 40-m-tall tower that neighbourhood residents say was the second tallest in Falluja, lies in a heap in the mosque’s courtyard. Hatham guides me through the destruction, pointing out where the imam was praying when a shell tore through his office, killing him on the spot. A wall surrounding the mosque now features holes of various sizes. We step through one and onto the edge of the barren no man’s land between Joulan and the American positions some 400 m away. A convoy of Humvees passes by in the distance, and Hatham quickly ushers me inside. “They are still shooting at us,” he claims. “It’s dangerous to be exposed.”

A cloud of fear hovers over this devastated part of the city. Hatham bitterly recalls what for him will be a permanent scar on his memory. “We had no warning that the Americans were going to attack,” he says. “I was sitting in my shop with my son when seven soldiers came in. They said, ‘Salam,’ which I thought was kind of them because Americans usually don’t greet us in our traditional way. Then they went back to their tank. Ten minutes later the fighting started.”

4THE Americans look down on us. They come into our homes acting like kings. That is no way to win our respect.’

Hatham grabbed his son and raced home, where he remained in hiding with his family for the duration of the month-long conflict, surviving on bread and water and whatever he could scavenge from his shop during lulls in the fighting. “The American snipers wouldn’t let us leave our homes,” he claims. “They fired at anything that moved. I couldn’t even go out to find cigarettes. I had to roll them from writing paper and old butts.”

Back at Khalaf’s home, the hunt for possessions has ended with meagre results. Neither he nor his sons dare to dig through the rubble, too afraid of bringing the precariously dangling roof down on their heads or disturbing unexploded ordnance. Khalaf shakes his head and stumbles over the rubble to the truck outside. Two of his sons will remain behind, sleeping on mats, to protect whatever remains from looters. The rest of the family has no choice but to return to a friend’s home in another part of al-Anbar province. As he climbs into the truck, Khalaf offers some advice to American war planners: “Do not come back to Falluja. If you do, we will shoot you. We will all join the mujahedeen and fight you to the death.” Amid the destruction, such bravado sounds a little forced. But there is no doubt that, for many Falluja residents, the war is far from over.