London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki has claimed that the city, which drove governmental forces out last week, is now controlled by Al-Qaeda. His aides have warned that the new Iraqi army has received orders to “liberate” the city with a shoot-to-kill strategy. “We are not going to take any prisoners,” says Muwaffaq Al-Rubai, a veteran advisor to Maliki. Using the Al-Qaeda bogeyman, Maliki has managed to persuade the Obama administration in Washington to speed up arms deliveries, including drones using Hellfire missiles, to Iraqi government forces.
However, the black-and-white picture painted by Maliki does not tell the whole story. To start with, although radical Islamist groups are involved in the current crisis in Fallujah, it is simply wrong to brand them all with the Al-Qaeda label. Elements from the groups operating under the label of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are certainly present in Fallujah and, to a lesser extent, in Ramadi, another town in Anbar. But the insurgency that has wrested control of Fallujah away from Maliki has also attracted armed Arab Sunni tribes that helped drive Al-Qaeda out of the city almost a decade ago. Some of the radical Sunni armed groups came to Fallujah from neighboring Syria, where they have suffered a series of defeats at the hands of rival Islamist groups. In a sense, Maliki provoked them into direct control by launching operations at the Kilometer 90 junction where the borders of Iraq meet with those of Jordan and Syria, a major crossing point for radical Islamists fighting against President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.
Almost a decade ago, a long history of war, a radical religious attitude, and an unfortunate accident served as ingredients of the deadly cocktail that turned Fallujah into the capital of insurgency in Iraq and the scene of the only major battle fought by the US-led coalition for control of the country. In fact, a quarter of the 4,000 US troops killed in Iraq lost their lives in battles that took place in and around Fallujah.
First, the history. Fallujah has been the site of many battles for the past 2,500 years. Its capture by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BCE opened the path to the Mediterranean for the Achaemenids, who pressed on to conquer Syria, the Sinai desert and Egypt. It was renamed Hoxt-dezh (“Distant Fort”) until its capture by the Romans in the 3rd century CE, when its name was changed to Misiche (“Middle One”) because, ringed by palm groves, it is surrounded by a loop of the Euphrates River that turns it into a peninsula. At one point, Mark Anthony’s expeditionary Roman force lost its baggage to desert raiders around Fallujah and had to retreat in haste.
In April 244 CE, however, the city once again changed hands after a bitter battle in which Roman Emperor Gordian III was slain by the Persians under the Sassanid King Shapur I. The Persian king had news of his victory engraved in three languages in the mountainside of Naqsh-e-Rostam, near present-day Shiraz. He also renamed the city Piruz-Shapur (“Victorious Shapur”) and built up as the principal garrison town in the mid-Euphrates area, starting a martial tradition that has continued ever since.
For six centuries after that, Piruz-Shapur was always a prize in the Persian—Roman wars. Emperor Julian captured it before being killed in a successful battle, allowing the Persians to restore their presence in the whole of the Levant. Bahram V, another Sassanid king, built a hunting palace close to the city and adorned it with a garden full of desert animals and exotic flowers based on the Persian parada’us (the origin of the word “paradise” and, in Arabic, “firdaws”). In Nezami’s great epic poem The Seven Cupolas, the city represents the palace inhabited by a princess dressed all in green. The city was lost to the Romans soon afterwards, but regained by Khosrow-Parviz, the fun-loving Sassanid monarch who was a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). There, Khosrow-Parviz built a fire temple, the remains of which have provided a major archaeological site in Mesopotamia for decades.
The Arab conquest of Mesopotamia in the 7th century CE marked the start of the city’s decline from which it did not recover until the 1940s. The conquerors sacked the city, burned its big buildings and bazaars, and destroyed its gardens and palm groves. Gradually, the name Fallujah, referring to a particular type of dates, began to be used.
Because of its location, however, Fallujah was bound to make a comeback. It is an almost natural resting place for caravans from the Arabian Desert hinterland on their way to the shores of the Mediterranean. Because it is well-watered, the location can also sustain a relatively high level of agricultural activity.
Fallujah attracted Saddam Hussein’s attention for a number of reasons. First, it is located in what is known as the Sunni Triangle, a narrow swathe of territory that provided the bulk of the Iraqi military elite under the Ottomans. Saddam, convinced that he would never win support among Iraqi Shi’ites, went out of his way to court the Sunni Triangle.
Fallujah is also the western wing of a system of military bases and garrison towns developed under Saddam, with the eastern wing represented by Baqubah. Located just 36 miles (58 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Fallujah is one arm of a pincer of which the other arm is Baquba. Always suspicious of a possible coup against him from inside Baghdad, Saddam made sure to keep substantial forces in both Fallujah and Baqubah to counter any uprising in the capital.
Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay, loved Fallujah because of its natural beauty and closeness to both the Euphrates and the desert. The two sons built palaces there, including an artificial lake, with an artificial island in the middle, where they set up a boat club, organized boat races and practiced water sports. In the year 1995, Saddam Hussein himself built one of his 22 new palaces there.
The palaces of the Tikriti clan fell in the hands of the American military. Qusay’s palace became the headquarters of the 361 Psychosocial Operations Unit of the US Army, whose task was to win the hearts and minds of the people in the city. The late Qusay’s palace was at the center of Camp Orharm, another US Army facility in the mid-Euphrates area.
Because of its role as a garrison city, Fallujah was home to large numbers of military families. According to some estimates, at least a quarter of the city’s 300,000 inhabitants belonged to the Iraqi military, including the Republican Guards and the various paramilitary forces set up by Saddam and his sons. The largest number of families from the Popular Army (Al-Haras Al-Qawmi) set up by the Ba’athists in the 1960s was also located there.
Fallujah’s history has given it a martial tradition that few other Iraqi cities share.
But to that must be added the city’s religious personality as the biggest concentration point for the Salafist radicals since the 19th century. The city was heavily proselytized in the 18th century by preachers from Najd, who disliked the way the Mesopotamian Shi’ites worshipped their imams. In 1802, a Najdi army with Fallujah volunteers raided the Shi’ite cities of Karbala and Najaf and destroyed their shrines. Since then, Fallujah has been home to most of Iraq’s radical Salafist clerics and their madrasas.
The religious character of Fallujah was bound to clash with its personality as a military center. The first clash came in the mid-1980s, when the government ordered that all mosque sermons end with praise and prayers for Saddam Hussein. The Fallujah clerics refused, with many of them ending up in prison for their disobedience.
Saddam also put the financial squeeze on the city’s religious seminaries by cutting off government subsidies. But this was partly compensated thanks to donations from the oil-rich Gulf states where private Salafist organizations and charities are strong. Several Gulf states also built hospitals, orphanages and other social facilities in Fallujah as a tribute to its Salafist personality.
When the 2003 war started, Fallujah had no reason to side with Saddam. But then a number of unfortunate accidents happened.
The first of these came in March 2003, when a British bomber fired four laser-guided missiles against a bridge over the Euphrates to the south of Fallujah. Three of the missiles missed the target and fell into the river. The fourth went astray and hit an open-air bazaar inside Fallujah, killing some 150 innocent civilians. The accident was seized upon by the local Salafists and the remnants of Saddam’s army and Republican Guards to foment hatred against the US-led coalition. At first, afraid that the coalition may be as brutal as Saddam Hussein, Fallujah demonstrations were small and limited to the main city square. Soon, however, the Fallujah leaders realized that the coalition could not come in and kill, as Saddam often did, and that the presence of hundreds of foreign journalists and television cameras provided them with a safety shield.
Thus Fallujah became a scene of almost daily demonstration and gained a reputation as the center of opposition to the coalition.
Another accident by the coalition made matters even worse. The US Army seized the housing units built for the Republican Guards and their families to house the GIs. These houses had been abandoned just before the start of the war as Saddam’s Republican Guards sent their families away to safer places further from Baghdad. When they returned after Saddam’s fall in April, they found their homes occupied by the Americans.
In politics, no one mistake comes alone. Thus, to complicate the situation, the US head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Ambassador Lt. Paul Bremer, decided to abolish the Iraqi Army and the Republican Guards. This meant that thousands of Iraqi military personnel were suddenly left homeless and jobless and derided by their compatriots as cowards who had run away. It was not long before they decided that only by taking up arms against the invaders could they find a new job and a new reason for being.
All this made for a deadly cocktail.
At the same time, Fallujah’s natural location makes it an ideal hiding place for guerrillas. The city covers a compact area of only 4 square miles (10.5 square kilometers). This is surrounded by dense palm groves where one could always hide. Since the city is built on both sides of the Euphrates, it looks like a peninsula with ample opportunities for coming and going through the river. An outer ring of extensive farms that add another layer of defense and a further escape route surrounds the immediate ring of palm groves. The marshy nature of much of the terrain makes it hard for armored units to operate in.
Because of its compactness, Fallujah has one of the highest rates of demographic density in Iraq. There are mazes of narrow streets in which large numbers of people live in relatively small houses. There are only a dozen or so streets wide enough for armored units to move in. Fallujah was recaptured when Sunni tribes decided to side with the Americans and drive the foreign jihadists out of their city.
At its peak, Fallujah and its environs were home to some 300,000 people. But by the time the latest round of fighting began ,no more than a quarter to a third were believed to be still inside Fallujah. Last week, Maliki invited all inhabitants to leave. However, the latest reports show that most have decided to stay.
At least three different groups are fighting in Fallujah.
One consists of the remnants of Saddam’s military. They are desperadoes who believe that by preventing the emergence of a new regime in Baghdad they could restore the old and regain at least some of the privileges they once enjoyed.
Another group consists of local Salafist militants backed by some tribal elements that, although they are happy that Saddam is gone, have concluded that Maliki wants to monopolize power for Shi’ites and deny Iraqi Sunnis their legitimate share of power and prosperity. Although Iraqi Sunnis account for at least 25 percent of the population, public investment in their three key provinces accounts for less than 10 percent. They hear echoes of the unprecedented prosperity enjoyed by the three autonomous Kurdish provinces and the largely Shi’ite south and feel let down by Maliki. While Erbil and Najaf appear to be booming, Fallujah and Ramadi appear doomed to decline and desolation.
The third group, as already noted, is made up of radicals once linked with Al-Qaeda. They are mostly non-Iraqi jihadists from a dozen different Arab countries. They offer skills that the local insurgents lack, including suicide bombing and chopping off heads. Again, there is little love lost between these jihadists and other insurgents in Fallujah. But both feel they need one another as Maliki threatens to massacre them.