No True Glory
By Bing West
Random House Bing West
All right reserved. ISBN: 0553804022
"What kind of people loot dirt?"
Throughout most of Iraq, the latter days of April, 2003 was a time of great joy. Saddam's murderous regime had collapsed; the shooting and bombing had stopped; and people could go anywhere they pleased and say anything they wanted. In Baghdad, the American forces were greeted with smiles, waves and shouts of joy. On the eastern bank of the Euphrates near the French embassy, wealthy Sunni suburbanites--anxious to win favor--led American Marines to the estates of Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and high-level generals. When the giant Stalinesque statue of Saddam, arm raised and mustache bristling, fell in Firdos Square, Americans and Iraqis alike were pulling on the ropes. April 2003 was an interlude of good cheer, reminiscent of the liberation of Paris in 1944--a moment in time when people forgot their wants and their fears and flocked to the streets to cheer the soldiers.
In Fallujah, though, the residents did not cheer when paratroopers from the 82d Airborne Division drove into the city in late April. In Baghdad, looters as numerous as locusts had stripped every government building, even carting away bricks. In Fallujah, the windows and electric fixtures at the Baath headquarters at the Government Center remained intact. Most looting was confined to the industrial sector, and only the poor people who lived south of Highway 10 greeted the Americans with smiles. Across the Euphrates south of the city, the large estates of prominent Baathists and army officers stood empty but untouched, securely guarded by the curlicue Baathist symbol on the courtyard gates. Saddam's apparatchiks did not consider themselves defeated. They were in temporary hiding and Fallujah was still their bastion, untouched by the war and unbowed by the presence of a few hundred American soldiers.
At dusk on April 28, 2003--Saddam Hussein's birthday--a raucous mob of about a hundred men, women, and children pushed their way into the courtyard of the mayor's office, where the 82nd had set up headquarters. The paratroopers had no warning that an anti-American demonstration was planned and had no idea what the Iraqis were protesting or why. The mob accused the surprised American soldiers of spying on women with night-seeing binoculars and of showing pornography to children. Using translators and loudspeakers, a group of paratroopers warned away the mob. The crowd walked several blocks to another neighborhood, where they harassed another detachment of paratroopers. Several men in the crowd were firing AK-47s into the air, which the veteran paratroopers interpreted not as a threat but as bravado. They told them to move on.
The mob then walked to a schoolhouse to harass another platoon of paratroopers, who were sleeping inside. It was well after nine and dark. The crowd had a new demand: the soldiers had to leave immediately so that the children could go to school the next day. As the mob pressed up to the schoolyard wall, three Iraqis on a nearby roof started shooting their rifles.
Inside the schoolhouse a squad leader, convinced he was under fire, radioed his company commander for permission to return fire. At the same time another sergeant radioed the same request. Believing his men were under attack, the company commander gave the order, and the keyed-up paratroopers unleashed a fusillade of automatic weapons fire. In the next several minutes fifteen men, women, and children were killed and dozens were wounded. None of the paratroopers were injured.
The next day seven major Western news outlets sent reporters from Baghdad to cover the story. Most filed similar stories about a terrible tragedy caused by a sudden flare-up in the dark. Several Iraqis had fired weapons, they reported, but while the Iraqis said they had been shooting in the air, the American soldiers said they had been the targets. The reporters wrote that they did see graffiti written in English on the walls of the school where the soldiers were sleeping, disparaging the Iraqis with slogans like "I love pork" and a drawing of a camel with the words Iraqi Cab Company below it.
The press focused on the human cost of the incident, the clash of cultures, and the bitterness the casualties had caused throughout the city. The shootings, according to the news accounts, would unleash a cycle of retribution: more deaths and more revenge attacks. But they gave no explanation as to why or how Fallujans had mounted an anti-American protest on Saddam's birthday, just days after the regime had collapsed, at a time when most Iraqis were celebrating.
Six months later Jamil Karaba, a Fallujah resident, was arrested after he was overheard bragging about organizing the mob and planting gunmen among the protesters.
Called the "destruction-maker," Karaba was an alcoholic former Baathist with several prior arrests and with ties to the gangster element in town. Provoking an incident was a centuries-old guerrilla stratagem for turning the people against the soldiery. And this time, as so often in the past, it had worked.
The next day a screaming mob carried on its shoulders the mufti Sheikh Jamal--the senior imam who interpreted Islamic laws--to the mayor's office.
"All Americans leave Iraq!" he shouted, as the crowd roared in agreement.
Cities acquire caricature, if not character. New York is frenetic and brash; San Francisco is liberal and laid-back; Los Angeles is imbued with glitter and celebrity. Ask Iraqis about Fallujah, and they roll their eyes: Fallujah is strange, sullen, wild-eyed, badass, just plain mean. Fallujans don't like strangers, which includes anyone not homebred. Wear lipstick or Western-style long hair, sip a beer or listen to an American CD, and you risk the whip or a beating.
For centuries the city had traded with--and stolen from--merchants who were headed east to Baghdad. The frontier town bordering an open desert attracted outcasts and criminals. In the early twentieth century European travelers learned not to tarry in Fallujah. After Iraq won its independence in 1959, Fallujah became a source of enforcers for the ruling Sunni-dominated Baath Party. The city's tough reputation continued under Saddam.
Laid out in a square grid of wide boulevards, Fallujah comprised two thousand blocks of courtyard walls, tenements, two-story concrete houses, and squalid alleyways. Half-completed houses, garbage heaps, and wrecks of old cars cluttered every neighborhood. The six lanes of Highway 10 ran straight through the center of the two-mile-long city, from a traffic cloverleaf on the eastern end to the Brooklyn Bridge, over the Euphrates, to the west. South of Highway 10 sprawled the decaying buildings and waste pits of a decrepit industrial zone. On an aerial map the layout of straight streets and dense blocks of houses faintly resembled Manhattan, giving rise to nicknames. Next to the industrial zone was Queens, a poor section of shabby three- and four-room houses. North of Highway 10 were the spacious houses of East Manhattan and Midtown, with its established mosques. The Government Center was in Midtown, while the old souk and marketplace, called the Jolan, were next to the Euphrates to the west. Along the main street were the billboards, restaurants, repair shops, and other struggling efforts of a merchant class. It was a city of monochrome color, without architectural flair.
With forty-seven mosques in its neighborhoods and fifty more in the neighboring villages, Fallujah was called "the city of a hundred mosques." For decades the city had been the repository of the extreme Wahhabi, or Salafi, traditions flowing in from Saudi Arabia. Saddam, distrusting Fallujans' fundamentalism, had restricted their movements and used them as his cat's paw.
Although 60 percent of Iraqis were Shiites, the 20 percent who were Sunnis had held the political power for centuries. When Saddam's army was defeated and thrown out of Kuwait in 1991, the Shiites in southern Iraq, encouraged by ill-conceived American exhortations, had revolted. To crush them, Saddam incited sectarian hatred. The Shiites, he warned the Sunnis, were blasphemers who had to be killed to preserve the true Muslim religion. Imams in Fallujah and other Sunni cities led the faithful in the chant: "Our blood and souls to redeem you, O Islam." Saddam's army, led by Sunni officers, crushed the Shiite uprising.
Just before the Americans drove into Fallujah in April 2003, the mufti Jamal, the senior Sunni cleric in the city, warned the residents that the American invaders would turn Iraq over to the Shiites. The radical clerics were calling President Bush "Hulagu II," a reference to the conquest of ancient Baghdad by the Mongol leader Hulagu, assisted by a Shiite leader who betrayed the ruling caliph. The Americans, the mufti told the citizens, were modern-day Mongols--infidel invaders and occupiers.
Fallujah's pro-Coalition mayor, Taha Bedawi, could not stand up against the anger that the shooting had provoked. He asked the paratroopers to leave the city, explaining that revenge attacks were inevitable. Maintaining peace between tribes depended upon exchanging an eye for an eye, one life for another. If an insult went unavenged, the family and tribe suffered humiliation and were seen as weak, thus encouraging further attacks. While the mayor was talking, a group of men gathered outside under banners that read "US killers we'll kick you out."
The 82nd Airborne units withdrew on schedule in early May and were replaced by a company from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. In the following weeks, although the American soldiers kept a low profile, repeated firefights erupted. The regiment, assigned to patrol more than a thousand square kilometers, could devote fewer than two hundred mounted soldiers to Fallujah and its environs.
Every day on the dusty brown courtyard walls along Highway 10, more anti-American slogans were scrawled: "God bless the holy fighters of the city of mosques." "Kill the infidel Americans." "USA leave our country."
The JTF decided to make Fallujah the "most occupied city in Iraq," replacing the two hundred soldiers of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment with fifteen hundred soldiers from the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division.
The Fallujah campaign of the 3rd ID had two prongs--the carrot and the stick. The "stick," or force, focused on raids. The 2nd Brigade mounted raids at night on houses that had been identified by informers or by the OGA--Other Government Agency, aka the CIA. During the daytime the 3rd ID conducted large-scale sweeps to search for weapons and arms dealers, locking down whole sections of the city for several hours at a time.
The armored presence of the 3rd ID was intimidating. During the daylight hours things were usually calm, although Iraqi police often turned their backs on the Americans and children were as likely to throw rocks as to laugh and ask for candy. The men rarely smiled. Yet the children were friendly south of Highway 10. The brigade's executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Eric Wesley, and New York Times reporter Michael Gordon felt safe enough to walk into the old Jolan quarter and talk with Iraqis in the crowded souk. The Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran ate lunch at the Haji Hussein, a popular kebab restaurant.
The raids were getting results, but whenever the wrong house was searched, the entry tactic--smashing down a door in the middle of the night--frightened a family and created more hostile Fallujans. LtCol Wesley called the raid successes "linear," like picking apples in a vast orchard one by one.
The brigade would have preferred to have "exponential" success, which involved the "carrot": winning over Fallujan hearts and minds by infusing jobs, repairing infrastructure, and building relationships with the mayor, the sheikhs, and the clerics. The Americans would provide the city's leaders with money and contracts. They in turn would reach out to the unemployed and disaffected, reducing the appeal of the insurgents and attracting recruits for the local security forces. If the Americans could show that they wanted to help improve the living conditions and would leave intact the city leadership and traditions, the theory went, then most youths would not support the insurgents.
Bargaining went on with the mayor, the sheikhs, and the city elders. The brigade called this a "relational approach"; you do something for me, and I do something for you.
"Let's be reasonable about this," LtCol Wesley told the city elders. "You have a stake in a better future, and we as American soldiers are here only to help you. We have no designs upon this city."
Whenever the nighttime attacks decreased, the curfew was lifted. Amnesty and cash rewards were offered for weapons, albeit with scant results. The humvee replaced the tank and armored personnel carrier as the routine patrol vehicle, reducing noise and damage to the streets. As long as progress seemed to be made, the brigade would show the velvet glove rather than the iron fist.
Sorting out who among the tens of thousands of males was a committed enemy, though, and gauging the depth of the population's hostility proved vexing. The soldiers spent days with bulldozers and rakes constructing a first-class soccer field downtown. When they finished and returned to base, a mob gathered at the soccer field, ripped down the goalie nets, scraped the dirt from the field, and heaped garbage on the site.
"What kind of people loot dirt?" a soldier asked.
Inside the city were enemies determined to prevent ordinary families from ever seeing that infidel invaders had improved their lives.
In July a massive internal explosion blew out the walls and demolished the roof of the Al Hassan Mosque, killing the imam and several other Iraqis. As a disaster crew removed the bodies, a crowd gathered to blame the Americans. "There is no God but Allah, America is the enemy of God," they chanted, as others screamed that an invisible aircraft had dropped a bomb.
The situation threatened to escalate into a citywide riot. Ra'ad Hussein Abed, a city official who spoke good English and hoped eventually to be appointed mayor by the city elders, approached LtCol Wesley. He arranged a meeting with Sheikh Ghazi, one of the wealthiest and most powerful traders in the city, to try to defuse the tension.
Excerpted from No True Glory by Bing West
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