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
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.”

What We're Following See More »
House Democrats Subpoena Don McGahn
11 hours ago

"House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler issued a subpoena to former White House counsel Don McGahn as part of a House-led obstruction investigation into President Donald Trump. The subpoena comes just days after special counsel Robert Mueller’s report revealed that McGahn witnessed and testified about potential obstruction of justice by Trump."

Nadler Subpoenas Unredacted Report
3 days ago
Mueller Made 14 Criminal Referrals
4 days ago
The Report Is Here
4 days ago
Nadler Asks Mueller to Testify By May 23
4 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.