Michael Shupp knows what it cost to take Fallujah.
The former Marine Corps colonel commanded the regimental combat team that dislodged insurgents from the Iraqi city in late 2004. U.S. and Iraqi troops went door-to-door, building-to-building hunting insurgents and clearing weapons caches to win a critical victory. In the process, more than 100 U.S. soldiers were killed in what became the bloodiest battle battle of the Iraq war. Shupp remembers watching an Iraqi general cry as he looked at a wall of the military headquarters filled with photos of coalition troops who were killed fighting insurgents—American and Iraqi alike.
But Shupp also remembers what it meant to take Fallujah.
He remembers walking the city's streets with an Iraqi flag he velcroed to the sleeve of his uniform. Local Iraqis, children to grown men, would approach him to touch it and say, "Shukran"—Arabic for "Thank-you."
The fight for Fallujah captivated the American public. It was there—and in the rest of the volatile but critical Anbar province—where the insurgency brewed after the invasion of Iraq to overthrow former dictator Saddam Hussein, and was later crushed by U.S. soldiers from the "surge" in 2008.
And so Shupp knows what it means to have lost Fallujah.
He was home in Annapolis, Md., this weekend when he received a flood of messages from Marines he fought with—from young enlisted guys to senior officers—bringing what he calls "heartbreaking news": Qaida-linked militants had taken control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, both in Anbar province, where roughly one-third of the total 4,486 American troops who were killed in that war died. The flags now flying over Fallujah's buildings are black, symbols of militant control.
Now, like many who fought in Fallujah, Shupp is wondering how the new Iraqi government lost a city that was won at so steep a cost, and fears have crept in that their sacrifice was in vain.
"I was proud of our Marines, the sacrifice they made, that the fighting was finished in the city and they restored peace and order to it," he said. "Now, I'm frustrated. Maybe the Iraqis are not living up to those sacrifices."
It's not just the former senior leaders who are upset. Rich Weir is a former Marine scout sniper who served there in the winter of 2008. His job was to hide from militants in abandoned buildings or sand dunes and, depending on the mission, report back on their activities or take out targets. "Everything we did there," Weir, 26, said, "it seems like it's all falling apart."
And Fallujah veterans worry about their Iraqi comrades with whom they had grown close but left behind as the U.S. wound down its military effort.
Major Tony Barrett, 45, arrived in Fallujah at the end of 2007 as an intelligence and tribal-engagement officer. He recalls a to visit one of the tribal leaders, a staunch opponent of al-Qaida who told him that the U.S. effort has succeeded in driving away the insurgents. "He said, 'Yes, Brother Tony. They all left.'" But that leader has since been killed, and Barrett was disgusted to think of who is controlling the area now, and fearful for the people who live there.
"[They] are thinking, 'These guys are back? You've got to be kidding me—I'm a victim of this again?' " said Barrett, now retired. "It's almost like spitting in the face of all the men who gave their lives fighting for that city."
But the city is more than a symbol for those who fought. Its fall to militants is a dark omen for the new Iraqi government in its initial years of securing the country without the help of U.S. troops.
Militants have gained strength in recent years as Sunni discontent with the Shiite-led government grows, and the unrest spills over from the civil war in neighboring Syria. Militants seized control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi not long after the arrest of a Sunni politician. Iraqi security forces cleared a protest camp where Sunnis had been demonstrating, and the fighting created a security vacuum.
The stakes are high: As Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki called on residents of the city to push out militants to avoid a siege by his security forces, it's already clear that a broad military operation could be ugly. It runs the risk of causing many civilian casualties, because the local forces do not have the right intelligence capabilities to launch a precise operation, says Ahmed Ali, senior Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. The Obama administration promised to expedite the deliveries of missiles and surveillance drones to Baghdad, but still, the violence could spread into other areas where other Iraqi Sunnis—already feeling marginalized by Maliki's Shiite-led government—could react violently.
Yet Doug Ollivant, former director for Iraq at the National Security Council during both the Bush and Obama administrations (and a retired Army officer) says it's possible this is a first step toward improving the situation on the ground in Iraq. "The Iraqi army has a target; now they know where al-Qaida lives. For so long, they have not been able to find them, and now … that they're out in the open, the army can mass thousands of people on them. It may be ugly, but they're there."
Lawmakers are reopening the argument over how President Obama should have handled the U.S. withdrawal, and fighting over whether the fall of Fallujah is an indictment of his chosen course.
The White House argues that the pullout of American troops is not to blame for the recent sectarian strife in the country, arguing there was violence even when 150,000 U.S. troops on the ground.
But Obama's congressional critics disagree. Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California says he went to a brewery in San Diego with some Marine buddies who fought with him in Fallujah, and he says all agreed the failure lies with the president for not striking an agreement to leave some troops in the country beyond 2011.
"We did our job. We did what we were asked to do, and we won," Hunter says. "Every single man and woman who fought in Iraq, especially in those cities, feels a kick in the gut for all they did, because this president decided to squander their sacrifice."
Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, another Iraq veteran, shares this view: "When we left, we basically took away our ability to hold the Iraqi government accountable, to have influence." But now, there are few options for Washington. "Once you pull troops out of a country, it's very unrealistic to put any back in, and we shouldn't do it."
Meanwhile, Fallujah's veterans are mourning what has been lost, as well as reassessing their hopes for Fallujah and Iraq.
"We all had a feeling of accomplishment in ridding the city of insurgents and returning the city back to the residents of Fallujah on the eve of the first Iraqi national election in January 2005," says retired Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski, who commanded the 1st Marine Division during the 2004 ground assault in Fallujah. "I am saddened the city and residents that so many American, British, and Iraqi forces sacrificed so greatly to protect are once again suffering under a similar group that terrorized the city in 2004."
Natonski says he had been certain—both after the 2004 victory and even when the remaining American troops pulled out of the country in 2011—that the city would remain secure. "My confidence, he says, never waned." National television news informed him about the city's current fate.
Barrett says he worries about what the militants' recent victory will mean for the work done to rebuild the city, as he is sure the basic infrastructure the coalition tried so hard to protect—water, electricity, security—is being threatened.
"Al-Qaida is kind of like a cancer that keeps infiltrating these tribes," Barrett said. "It's just like going back to the dark days."
And for Weir—who is now a law student in in Berkeley, Calif.—the fall of Fallujah is another sign that the U.S. fell short of its initial hopes to rebuild and secure the country.
"We didn't get out of [Iraq] what we wanted to," Weir said. "Had we known what it would look like now, we wouldn't have done it."