What We Lost, When We Lost Fallujah

“Had we known what it would look like now,” says one veteran, “we wouldn’t have done it.”

A member of the Iraqi Civil defense Corps (ICDC) prays at a joint checkpoint with US soldiers at the entrance of the restive city of Fallujah 05 May 2004.
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
Jan. 8, 2014, 9:03 a.m.

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.”

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