In the end, the offensive in Falluja did not have the impact that many had expected, writes Zaid Al-Ali*
On 19 November 2004 -- 11 days after the US military launched a massive assault on Falluja -- a top American commander stated that the assault had "broken the back on the insurgency". Since then, over 70 American troops as well as hundreds of Iraqis have been killed, and anti-occupation attacks have continued at the same pace as prior to the offensive. Iraqi politicians have been struggling to determine whether the appalling lack of security will permit elections to take place at the end of next month, while United Nations and European Union officials have argued that it might be best if they were postponed. It is as if the whole offensive never happened -- except that thousands of people have been killed and maimed, and an entire city has been reduced to rubble.
It was clear from the beginning that the American government and military would not allow the insurgents to control Falluja forever. But American expectations were once again based on a number of basic misconceptions. It is an issue of much contention as to whether the insurgency that started in the city of Falluja over a year ago was a reflection of a dissatisfaction amongst the local population with the occupation, or whether foreign fighters made up the driving force of the insurgency there. The American military claimed that the latter was true, and that the city had become a base for operations that were carried out throughout the country. Although there may very well be some truth to the American's claims, it is difficult to believe that the US military did not realise that the situation could not be as simple as they claimed.
Some of the first casualties of the American occupation of Iraq were in Falluja. On 29 April, 2003, three days before George Bush declared victory over Saddam Hussein, 13 Iraqis were killed in the city when US soldiers opened fire on a demonstration. The demonstrators were demanding that the Americans withdraw from a school that they had been using as a barracks since their arrival in the city a few days before. The US military claimed they had been fired on first. A day later, two more Iraqis were killed when US troops again fired on a group of demonstrators. The military stated that it was defending itself, whereas Iraqi witnesses claimed that there had been no gunfire from the direction of the protesters. Regardless of whether or not the military had been shot at first, the city's residents clearly believed that it was the US that was to blame. According to the tribal code that many Fallujans live by, it then became a matter of seeking revenge, which meant that it was just a matter of time.
Although Falluja is a relatively modern industrial city, its people do not have a typically modern outlook. Falluja is the first major city from the Jordanian border on the way to Baghdad. Anyone driving into Iraq from Jordan can attest to the fact that the area known as the fertile crescent does not contain the west of Iraq, otherwise known as the Anbar province. The road is long and the area surrounding it is harsh and extremely arid. For centuries, many of the inhabitants of the Anbar province survived on dry farming. However, more than a century ago, many turned to trade, in areas such as textiles, for their subsistence. As a result of their new occupation, many set up operations in the region's major capitals, including Baghdad of course, and on many stations along their trade routes, such as on the border between Jordan and Iraq.
The harsh circumstances in which these people lived have had an important influence on their traditions and their beliefs and continue to have an important impact even today. Indeed, although the circumstances in which these people live have changed, their traditions have remained the same. Until the trade routes were established, they were confined to their desolate lands, far away from Baghdad and other major cities. Harsh discipline was adopted, rigid religious practices were followed, and tastes were modest -- all by necessity. The effect of this can be seen throughout the members of the community even today and even amongst the most affluent. In Baghdad, many of the trading families that originate from the west of Iraq have managed to accumulate vast personal fortunes. And yet, despite their wealth and despite the size of their sprawling mansions, their inhabitants typically continue to sit and rest on the floor and to live very modestly.
Many of those that did not make the transition to trade migrated from the countryside from the 1950s onwards to the area's main cities, including Falluja, to seek employment in the country's rapidly developing industrial sector. Falluja experienced rapid growth during this period, as did the number of mosques in the city.
This is in contrast to many of the other areas of Iraq that are located within the fertile crescent, which is to say, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This includes the Salaheddin province, which has as its capital Tikrit. The area is made up of rich agricultural land and has an abundant supply of fresh water thanks to the major rivers that run through it. In addition, because of its proximity and easy access to Baghdad, the region has a long history of association with the country's capital. However, despite the area's natural comforts and its rich surroundings, its people are considered to be amongst the most irreligious in the country. There is a deep cultural gap between the people of the Anbar province on the one hand and people from the Salaheddin province on the other. This difference can be felt even amongst second or third generation emigrants who live in Baghdad. Baghdadis who are descendants of residents of the Anbar province are looked down upon as backwards and as religious fanatics, while Tikritis for example are often derided as non-believers.
It is no coincidence that Falluja, Ramadi and the entire Anbar province in the west of Iraq rapidly became a centre of anti-occupation sentiment, whereas Tikrit is passive in comparison. And as for the American's insistence that Falluja had been infiltrated by foreign fighters, only two dozens were taken prisoners during the offensive, while more than 1,000 Iraqis were arrested. Meanwhile, Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi -- the notorious and elusive extremist whose alleged presence in Falluja was supposed to have been the American's entire reason for invading the city -- seems, rather conveniently, to have escaped.
During a break in the fighting in Falluja a few weeks ago, an American marine explained to a journalist that a number of insurgents were holding out in a group of buildings that stood right before him, and that many of them were weak and injured from the battles that had been ongoing over the previous days. The marines had sent a negotiator to meet the insurgents in order to convince them to surrender. The marine said the insurgents "sent the message that they preferred to die rather than surrender. So they'll die." The message was similar to an old American revolutionary rallying cry: Liberty or death. Falluja has been demolished by an offensive that has, as yet, made little or no difference to the security situation in the rest of the country. Attacks continue unabated, and dozens of people, including Iraqis as well as Americans, continue to die every day. The only concrete result is that thousands of young men who chose to defend their homes rather than surrender to foreign occupation, along with an unknown number of civilians who were caught up in the fighting, will now be buried in what should be known as the first free city in Iraq, in every sense of the word.
* The writer is an attorney at the New York Bar and practises international arbitration law in Paris. He is the editor of www.iraqieconomy.orgwww.iraqieconomy.org