*The following is an abridged chapter from a manuscript I’m contributing to titled The Sacking of Fallujah: The US Attacks and their Legacy. We’re looking for a publisher, so if you got connections, hook us up.
Ten years ago today, I participated in the 2nd Siege of Fallujah, a major war crime embedded within the larger war crimes of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. The 2nd siege killed somewhere between 4000 to 6000 civilians, displaced 200,000, destroyed two-thirds of a city the size of Boston, and may have polluted the environment to such an extent that 14.7 % of all children born in Fallujah are now born with birth defects. There is nothing subtle about any of this. Yet these facts receive shockingly little attention, and this ten year milestone will motivate nothing more than a handful of sentimental OpEds about the veterans of this operation and how it changed their lives. What should be an opportunity for critical reflection and accountability will instead be used to celebrate the people who sacked Fallujah, and US militarism more generally.
If we, as a society, understood what we did to this city in 2004, we would have a chance of understanding how our current actions in Iraq continue to bring Iraqis nothing but harm and hardship. Fallujah is under attack once again—this time by the Iraqi government, with US military aid and assistance—and it is this 3rd Siege of Fallujah that has been the major vehicle of the Islamic State’s military success in Iraq.
Why is any of this important? Because the Obama administration’s solution to the threat posed by the Islamic State (henceforth IS) mirrors the conditions that allowed IS to grow and thrive in Iraq. But for this to be apparent, we need to understand what has allowed IS to take over a swath of land the size of the UK. The key to understanding this is Fallujah.
Connecting the Past to the Present
This 3rd siege of Fallujah is the logical consequence of the first two sieges and all the structural injustices put in place by the US-led occupation. The continuity is seamless.
Fallujah stood as the major obstacle to the US-led occupation’s political project in 2004. Without the 2nd Siege of Fallujah, the Coalition could never have created the facade of legitimate elections, a democratically drafted constitution, and the process of state building. Thus, Fallujah had to be erased—as a military force and as a symbol of nationalist resistance against the occupation. The sacking of Fallujah is the essential moment in the Coalition’s occupation of Iraq.
In the years following the sieges of 2004, Fallujah was turned into an open air prison, like Gaza, completely sealed off from the world by barbed wire and Coalition checkpoints. Residents were confined within city limits and lived under curfew and constant surveillance. Journalists were not allowed into Fallujah, and no news ever left Fallujah.
Unknown to the world, on the other side of the checkpoints surrounding Fallujah, horrific developments were unfolding among its population: massive increases in the rates of birth defects, cancers and other life-threatening maladies. This snowballing public health crisis went unreported and untreated for years, as Fallujans remained trapped in their toxic city.
During this period, the troop “surge” ordered by President Bush in January 2007 went on to suppress, co-opt, or marginalize all remaining armed resistance groups throughout the country and impose the “new Iraq,” over which Iraqis themselves had no say.
When the last US troops finally withdrew in 2011, all of the injustices imposed upon Iraqis remained in place and became actively enforced by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who many Iraqis accused of ruling Iraq like a “Shia Saddam”. Widespread discontent with the political, economic, public health, and human rights situation in Iraq led to the nonviolent protest movement that began in December 2012 and quickly spread throughout the country. The “Iraqi Spring” protests had widespread support throughout the Sunni provinces and considerable support from the Shia community as well. In many Iraqi cities, but notably in Fallujah and Ramadi, activists set up protest camps and held weekly large scale demonstrations calling for political reform.
The protestors articulated a set of demands that addressed the sectarianism, corruption, and various abuses by the new Iraqi government. These abuses included the detention of women in order to elicit confessions from their husbands and male family members; the labeling all forms of political dissent as terrorism (both tactics inherited from the Americans); the creation of sectarian death squads operating with impunity under the command of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, and various forms of political discrimination. The protestors’ grievances were articulated by Sheikh Khaled Hamoud Al-Jumaili, a leader of the protest camp in Fallujah, when he told Al Jazeera, “[w]e demand an end to checkpoints surrounding Fallujah, we demand they allow in the press, we demand they end their unlawful home raids and detentions, we demand an end to federalism and gangsters and secret prisons”.
For a year Maliki ignored the protesters’ demands and repeatedly sent in troops to suppress them. Maliki’s government had been receiving considerable support from both the US and Iran. But the US played a special role in enabling the Iraqi government’s internal repression, having provided it with military equipment, including the equipment for a navy and an air force, and the personnel to train the new Iraqi military. Despite this oppression, facilitated with US weapons, the protestors remained nonviolent and steadfast in their goal to undo much of what the occupation had done to Iraq.
However, on December 1st, 2013, the violence began to escalate. On that day Sheikh Khaled Hamoud Al-Jumaili was driving with his son, until they stopped in front of a car that was blocking the road. Two men armed with Kalashnikovs exited the car in front of them and proceeded to fire, killing the sheikh and his son. The men who killed them were from Hamas al-Iraq, a militia group tied to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Maliki government.
Then, through its actions on December 30th, the Iraqi government turn a nonviolent movement violent. Maliki sent Iraqi security forces to clear the protest camps—first in Ramadi and then in Fallujah—under the false pretext that the protests had been infiltrated by IS (then known as ISIS, Islamic State of Iraq and al Shab), who at that time was still affiliated with Al Qaeda. Iraqi security forces even arrested a politician who had been sympathetic to the protestors’ goals and assassinated his brother and sister-in-law. Viewing this attack as the last straw, many tribes in Fallujah took up arms and began to drive Iraqi security forces out of their city. This led to skirmishes between tribal fighters, who just a day prior had been nonviolent protestors, and Iraqi soldiers. The next day a convoy of ISIS fighters arrived in Fallujah, but after consulting with tribal leaders they agreed to position themselves on the outskirts of the city.
On January 2nd the Iraqi Ministry of Interior reported to the press that half of Fallujah had “fallen” to ISIS. This claim was false, but the media quoted and repeated it until it became a conventional wisdom that Fallujah had indeed fallen into the hands of terrorists. The Western media framed the violence as an ethnic dispute between Sunni extremists and the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. The US then increased its level of military support to Iraq, promising to send fresh shipments of Hellfire missiles and Apache attack helicopters to “help” the Iraqi military “in the battle to uproot Islamic fighters from Ramadi and Fallujah”.
What is striking about the Iraqi government’s justification for its assault on Fallujah, and the Western media’s coverage of these events, is how much their responses parallel those of the US-led sieges in 2004. Again it was claimed that Al Qaeda (or an affiliate) had taken over Fallujah and that a heavy handed military response was needed to “take back” the city. Again the media parroted these assertions, focusing on Islam, or conflicts between competing sects of Islam, as the main explanation for the violence. Again, it was a government attack that pushed a nonviolent movement in Fallujah to embrace violence in order to defend themselves, and yet Fallujah was framed as the aggressor. And Again, Fallujans were denied the opportunity to speak for themselves and to articulate their own reasons for resistance to the world.
The 3rd Siege and Rise of the Islamic State
IS has its origins in the group known as Tawhid al Jihad, which was an al Qaeda affiliated group in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. In 2006 Tawhid al Jihad was absorbed by a militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq. However, the group quickly became ostracized within Iraq due to its sectarianism and its acts of terrorism. For many years the ISI was forced to the margins of Iraqi society. When the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, ISI saw this as an opportunity to gain strength and popularity. After two years of fighting in Syria, ISI split from the Syrian branch of al Qaeda, called Jabhat al Nusra, and changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and al Shab (“al Shab” means greater Syria) to reflect its new territorial ambitions. The group remained concentrated in Syria until they saw an opportunity to overcome their past unpopularity in Iraq. That opportunity was the 3rd Siege of Fallujah.
It is important to note that from the beginning of the 3rd siege of Fallujah, it was the tribal fighters who took the lead in the fight against the Iraqi government. ISIS arrived in Fallujah a day after the fight began, and attempted to piggy-back on the success of the tribal fighters by raising their flag over a building in Fallujah. This move was reported by the Western media as a sign of ISIS’s power in Fallujah. However, Feurat Alani, a French-Iraqi journalist with family ties in Fallujah, told me through personal correspondence that, “[ISIS] took the flag down five minutes later when ordered to by tribal leaders. This shows that the tribes control Fallujah.”
In fact, a command structure was set up in Fallujah within the first weeks of fighting. It consisted primarily of tribal leaders and former army officers and went by the name of the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries (henceforth, GMCIR). This council was led by Sheikh Abdullah Janabi, who led the Shura Council of Mujahideen in 2004. After the 2nd US-led assault on Fallujah, Janabi fled to Syria, but returned to Fallujah in 2011. His calls for cooperation between the various militant factions in Fallujah were a signifiant unifying factor. And, indeed, at first ISIS was cooperating with the GMCIR. But over the course of the months of fighting with the government, ISIS grew in size and strength. Divisions and power struggles began to emerge between the various rebel factions fighting against the Maliki government. Yet despite all the glaring differences between these groups in Fallujah, the Iraqi government refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of any Sunni militia. A government official told Reuters reporters that, “if anyone insists on fighting our forces, he will be considered an [ISIS] militant whether he is or not.”
The first two weeks of fighting were fierce and led to many losses on both sides. Several Iraqi military vehicles were destroyed and the Iraqi military made no real advances into Fallujah. The rebellion quickly spread to other cities in Anbar province, and everyone began calling the uprising a “revolution”. For a brief, hopeful moment it looked like the rebel fighters had the ability to win. Then the Iraqi military stopped trying to penetrate into Fallujah and instead sealed off all entry and exit points to and from the city. They began an indiscriminate campaign of bombing and launching artillery from the outskirts of Fallujah, safely outside of the range of the rebels’ weapons. Whereas the rebel fighters had been a match for the Iraqi military in urban combat, they did not have the military capabilities to defend themselves from the indiscriminate aerial and artillery attacks.
Since the start of the assault on December 22nd, civilian structures have been shelled and bombed repeatedly, including hospitals. Civilians have been wounded and killed nearly each and every day since the New Year. So far over 1,000 civilians have been killed and over 2,500 have been wounded. Struan Stevenson, President of European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Iraq, wrote an open letter calling the Iraqi government’s operation “genocidal”. The Geneva International Center for Justice has issued appeals and various letters to the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, UN Special Procedures, and other UN bodies arguing that the current assault on Fallujah, and all of Al Anbar province, meets the legal definition of genocide. The 3rd siege has also created another wave of refugees within Iraq. A UN report has placed the number of displaced at 62,679 families, or roughly 370,000 people, from within Anbar province.
This campaign was initiated by Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, whose sectarian policies privilege Shia Iraqis and conflated all Sunni Iraqis with terrorists. His party, the Islamic Dawa Party, won more seats than any other political block in the Iraqi parliamentary elections on April 30th, securing their dominance over the political scene in Iraq; despite widespread allegations of voting irregularities and intimidation. After the election results, Maliki took his party’s victory as a green light to intensify his assault on Fallujah. On May 4th, 5 civilians were wounded and 15 were killed by the bombing and shelling. On May 5th, 9 civilians were wounded and 4 were killed. The next day 9 people were wounded and 4 killed. And the day after that, 45 civilians were wounded and 7 were killed. And so on, day after day. Fallujans were at the mercy of military forces who bombed and shelled their city at will, often using new experimental “barrel bombs” dropped from Iraqi Air Force M18 helicopters in residential areas of the city.
Just when it seemed as if the militants in Fallujah and the government were locked in stalemate that could go on forever, slowly killing off and starving the population of Fallujah, ISIS and several other militias launched a blitzkrieg assault that captured the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The Western media reported that on June 10th Mosul “fell” to ISIS and 500,000 residents fled their home in fear. Again, ISIS was portrayed as a monolithic actor that was conquering territory through violence and intimidation. Again, the reality was more complicated.
The joint operations launched by ISIS, tribal, and Baathist militias to take Mosul faced little opposition from the Iraqi Army, which threw down its weapons and deserted en mass. Five hundred thousand residents of Mosul did indeed flee their homes, but not out of fear of ISIS’s Sharia courts. Rather, they fled because they feared that Maliki’s reprisal would make their city “another Falluja [sic]”.
This “revolution”, which started in Fallujah and slowly spread to other cities in Anbar province, suddenly become a national phenomenon attracting international headlines and the fearful eye of Washington and Tehran. The loose coalition of rebel militias went on to capture, or liberate, other cities north of Baghdad, including Tikrit, cities to the West, such as Tel Afar, and one of Iraq’s largest oil refineries at Baiji. In response, Muqtada al Sadr recalled his Mahdi Army but has not yet taken sides in this battle. However, other predominantly Shia organizations have announced their support for the revolution, such as the Unified Confederation of Tribes of the South and Middle Euphrates and the Popular Movement for the Salvation of Iraq, and some Shiite religious leaders have announced their support as well.
The rapid growth of this revolution would not have been possible without IS, who brought international funding and a steady supply of weapons to the cause. Their capture of US military equipment gifted to the Iraqi Army helped them quickly become one of the most powerful military forces in the region. In July they changed their name from the Islamic State of Iraq and al Shab to just the Islamic State. They also announced that their military leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was now wearing a second hat as the Caliph of the newly constituted Islamic state.
Furthermore, the gains of the rebels prompted the US and Iranian governments to take more overt forms of intervention. US President, Barrack Obama initially promised to send 300 “advisers” to aid the Iraqi military. Meanwhile, Iran sent troops and mechanized units.
During this period the Iraqi Army’s siege on Fallujah transformed into a more general and protracted military campaign against the uprising that had spread across much of western, central, and northern Iraq. Events escalated further when IS’s territorial gains began to encroach upon Kurdish territory and IS began killing and evicting religious minorities from the areas they captured. When IS trapped tens of thousands of Yazidis (neither Christians nor Muslims and, therefore, apostates in the eyes of IS) on top of a mountain and threatened genocide against them, the Obama administration decided to renew airstrikes in Iraq.
However, in President Obama’s address to the nation, he identified the beginning of IS’s “advance across Iraq” as starting in June, omitting the six months prior when the Islamic State was gaining strength and momentum by defending Fallujah from the Iraqi government’s assault. President Obama also omitted the US role in creating the conditions that allowed the Islamic State to grow and thrive by arming the Maliki government’s genocide against the Sunni population in Anbar. Instead, President Obama claimed that the US was just at that moment choosing to intervene in Iraq against a terrorist threat that appeared out of nowhere in June in order to “prevent a potential act of genocide”.
This ahistorical analysis of the Islamic State’s rise to power and US intervention in Iraq obscures the flaws in the Obama administration’s policies, because the proposed solutions mirror the conditions that strengthened and emboldened the Islamic State. IS’s success in Iraq cannot be explained by its brutal tactics, its religious ideology as a source of recruitment, or its Saudi Arabian Financiers. Many of those who came to tolerate, support, or ally themselves with IS in Iraq were former nonviolent protestors in the Iraqi Spring movement that explicitly opposed federalism and sectarianism. But they were willing to overlook IS’s sectarian rhetoric (when in the beginning it was just rhetoric) and their goal of dividing Iraq out of their desperation to overthrow the Maliki government. IS was only permitted to exist amongst the Sunni community because of the oppression of the Iraqi government. Not only did it survive the airstrikes and shelling of the Iraqi government, but it grew and thrived because of them. Thus, we should not expect that renewed US airstrikes will do anything but increase the Sunni population’s reliance on IS for security and further strengthen IS as an organization.
Viewed in this context, the Obama administration’s actions are deeply sectarian. Despite its calls for an inclusive government in Baghdad, and its initiative to force Nouri al Maliki to step down from his Prime Ministership; the reality of the Obama administration’s actions is that they have chosen sides in a sectarian war. Indeed, Maliki was forced to step down from his position as Prime Minister, and the Iraqi President, Fouad Massoum, appointed Haider al Abadi to take his place. However, a new “presidential structure” was created for three Vice Presidents, and one of those seats was given to Nouri al-Maliki.
Furthermore, the new Prime Minister is a member the same sectarian based political party as Maliki. Shortly after Abadi’s cabinet was formed, the Sunni community’s suspicions that the new government would continue the policies of the old guard were proven true. On September 13, Prime Minister Abadi promised to end all attacks on civilian areas. However, the very next day, Fallujah was bombed and shelled. Six civilians were killed and twenty-two were wounded. Then on September 15th, Fallujah was bombed again. Two people were killed and fourteen were injured. On September 16th, three civilians were killed and nineteen wounded. In short, the bombing and shelling of Fallujah has continued unabated under the new Abadi government.
Far from a humanitarian intervention, and lacking effective diplomatic action to create an inclusive government, the Obama administration has merely increased its support for the sectarian government in Baghdad.
Furthermore, the Obama administration’s initial promise of limited overt intervention in Iraq has gradually been expanded to a planned three-year mission. The number of troops deployed to Iraq continues to grow well beyond the initial 300 figure, with small teams now operating on the ground. Then, in a significant escalation of the conflict, on September 23rd, President Obama announced that the US was conducting airstrikes against IS in Syria as well as Iraq. And the US is now conducting airstrikes around Fallujah.
The 3rd Siege of Fallujah saved IS from remaining the marginal military force that it had thus far been. The brutality of this siege created the casus belli for the Islamic State to gain legitimacy in the eyes of many Iraqis, allowing them to secure a foothold in Sunni communities and expand their campaign to establish themselves as a regional military power and as a self proclaimed caliphate, administering the lives of millions of inhabitants.
Their success has elicited shrill panic in the Western world. IS dominates the media’s attention, and what gets lost in this hysteria is that IS is not the only religiously motivated, expansionist state in the region, IS is not the only group beheading people in the region (the Iraqi military and Saudi Arabia both behead people regularly), and IS is not the only group with genocidal ambitions in the region.
IS is not an isolated phenomenon. Their campaign of terror is happening in parallel with a very legitimate uprising against an oppressive government. But to understand how these two movements can be happening simultaneously, one needs to understand how the US-led occupation crushed all opposition to their political project (most notably in Fallujah, how they put a corrupt, sectarian government in power, the US and Iraqi governments repression of the Iraqi Spring protests, and the 3rd siege of Fallujah.
The violence in Iraq could quite easily be resolved by addressing the needs of the Sunni community—thereby reducing their reliance on IS for security—and by holding those who committed crimes against them accountable. IS has alienated themselves from their base of support through their brutal tactics and their sectarianism. There are Sunni groups that are willing and more than capable of ejecting IS from their communities, but they will not do so until the crimes committed against them have been addressed. However, the US has no interest in taking effective diplomatic action, and instead has chosen endless war.
The point is, understanding what we did to Fallujah is important. Not only should the name “Fallujah” be remembered alongside other American made massacres—like Wounded Knee, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Mai Lai—understanding what we have done to this city is key to understanding how murderous our current policies in Iraq really are, and how we can extract ourselves from this bloodbath.