Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fallujah by James Hider

April, 2004

From the very start of the occupation, Fallujah had been the epicentre of the incipient insurgency. Its citizens proudly called their hometown the City of Mosques, a description that made it sound much grander than it was. Sure, there were plenty of shiny mosques (or at least, they had been shiny before the mortars and machine guns chewed up their minarets until they looked like used toothpicks). But otherwise it was a run-down, forbidding den of haughty and staunchly religious tribesmen, perched on an ancient smuggling route from Jordan to Baghdad. It was a city steeped in tribal honor, with all the brutality and human suffering that entailed. The men of Fallujah, I was told, would pull their guns on each other for trying to jump a petrol queue. Proud and devout, with a hair-trigger response to any slight upon their manhood, the city's population of 300,000 was entangled in a web of centuries-old blood feuds into which the American army- the largest and newest tribe on the block- had stumbled.

The men of the city had a frightening disregard for the fighting capacities of their occupiers, matched only by a flagrant indifference to their own deaths. Their fate was in Allah's hands: their task was to defend only their honor and their families, in that order. Fallujah had often been described as a hotbed of support for Saddam. Closer to the truth was that even Saddam had been wary of these ferociously insular desert berserkers and had co-opted them into his Republican Guard regiments, subscribing to the old adage that you should keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.

The buildings were the same washed-out non-color as the dusty flat-lands that limped off to the horizon, as though one of the seasonal dust storms had long ago been frozen by some capricious djinn into the shapes of houses and streets. The merchants' homes were walled mini-fortresses, or sprawling neo-Babylonian displays of gaudy opulence, with every possible combination of stone colonnade, Swiss gable and Roman palisade available to the kitsch-loving ranks of Iraqi sheikhdom...The last time I had plucked up the courage to walk through the market in Fallujah, while on a trip there a couple of months before, a small boy had called out to me. 'Mister, Mister.' When I looked at him he mimed firing an imaginary RPG at my face. I smiled nervously and walked quickly back to my car, the market stallholders staring at me impassively as I left. At few weeks after that, a group of American security contractors working for the firm were ambushed by local clansmen, raked with machine-gun bullets and blown up by rocket fire. Then a howling, capering mob came out and beat the burning bodies with sticks, tied them with string to the rear bumpers of cars and dragged then down Fallujah's main street, to a steel girder bridge built by the British in the 1940s....

Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne, commander of the First Battalion, Fifth Regiment of the U.S. Marine Corps ordered his men to shave off the wispy moustaches they had been told to grow as a token of respect for the local tribesmen and launched a large-scale 'cordon and knock' sweep of the city for the killers. Almost instantly they ran into a well-prepared guerrilla force. Lulu, who was with the marines, was pinned down by rocket and machine gun fire with her embed unit and had to be extracted by armoured vehicles. She phoned me in my Baghdad hotel room the same night and told me to get down to Fallujah as quickly as possible.

Unlikely as it had seemed even a week before it happened, the American military had lost control of the main highway leading west from Baghdad to Jordan. Right on the outskirts of the occupied capital, gunman pinned down US supply convoys with roadside bombs and rocket attacks, the terrified ex-military drivers hunkered by their stalled 18-wheelers, clutching carbines and waiting to be kidnapped or killed. The sinews of the occupation were snapping fast... It took a week of badgering the marines before the agreed to fly me and a few other journalists to the fighting...

Colonel Byrne was becoming increasingly frustrated that his assault was going nowhere in those early days of April. He knew his men could take the city, if he was just given clear instructions to do so. But the instructions never came. Instead, the marine commanders, who had initially advised against Washington's determination to invade the city, knowing what a bloody price would be paid, were ordered to pull back and train a local force of ex-army officers from Fallujah to police the city. It was a disastrous decision. The Fallujah Protective Force, as it was known, turned out to be little more than he same guerrillas the marines had just spent the month trying to defeat. And the Mujahedin, gloating at the withdrawal of their seemingly unstoppable foe, declared a miraculous victory for Allah.

If it was a stinging climbdown for Byrne and his men, it was much, much worse for the people of Fallujah. The real nightmare was just beginning for them, as their city became a mini-Taliban state of beheadings, beatings and summary executions. Fallujah also quickly became the Detroit of car bombs, with the workshops of the industrial quarter once again put to use in churning out explosive-rigged vehicles destined for the Shia markets just up the road in Baghdad.


  1. The last time I 'd heard 'Garryowen' was when I was still a kid, maybe ten years old. The Irish drinking song, picked by George Armstrong Custer as battle hymn for his Seventh Cavalry, was the tune his pipers played as the doomed regiment road to annihilation at the hands of the Sioux nation at the Little Bighorn. Sandwiched between "Dixie" and Shenandoah" on the 1976 double vinyl album released to commemorate the bicentenary of America's declaration of independence, it always sent a shiver down my spine. My mother was enthralled by the song too, and we'd played it time and time again on our crackling record player, she carefully lifting the arm of the stylus back to the beginning as soon as it had finished, and off we'd go again.

    I didn't hear 'Garryowen' again until a gray afternoon in November 2004. This time, it was blaring through loud speakers fixed to the tops of metal poles that supported row after row of white plastic tents in the vast, dusty camp on the edge of Fallujah. And this time, it was announcing to the hundreds of troopers of the Second Battalion of Marines, Seventh Cavalry, that they were, once again, about to ride into battle....

    An Iraqi friend of mine, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, was the only journalist brave enough to actually take up a Mujahedin offer to report from their stronghold on the eve of the battle. He told me later that while the cavalrymen I was with were getting pumped up on death-metal and Rocky, the foreign fighters were ribbing each other like suicidal frat boys, joshing about how many virgins each would receive in paradise. A Yemeni recruit, who had sold almost all his worldly possessions and left his wife and kids to get to the battle, was joking that when he and his comrades died, as he was sure they soon would, the Saudi in their volunteer unit would only get twenty-five girls, while he himself would get the full quota of seventy-two promised in the holy scripture.

    In fact, the promise of scores of virgins is believed by some Islamic scholars to be a mistranslation of the ancient Aramaic word 'hur', meaning juicy white grapes, a rare delicacy in the early days of Islam when the followers of the Prophet were fighting in the deserts of the Hejaz. In Arabic, the word 'hur' means virgin.

    While the muddled Arab volunteer kamikazes prepared to trade their lives for the delights of the produce aisle, their Iraqi comrades were already ripping them off in the here and now: the oal jihadists often treated them as simply car-bomb fodder, charging them exorbitant prices for food and lodging and rarely bothering to give them any military training. As the first American shells fell around them, one of the Gulf Arabs was fiddling with the safety catch of his Kalishnikov. He looked at Ghaith and hopefully asked if he could show him how to use it.

    Not all the men gathered in Fallujah for battle were religiously inspired Mujahedin, however. Instead of a new Salahedin's army ready to deliver Jerusalem from the infidels, many of those my translator's cousin came across girding themselves for battle were former Baathists, Syrian agents or local criminals on the payroll of Al-Qaeda, or tribesmen simply defending their turf. Many of these were the men who had turned Fallujah into a new Taliban mini-state, beating men who failed to respect their unforgiving ideology and exporting car bombs to the capital. This was not the fight to give up his life for, he promptly decided,and sneaked out of town before the battle began...

  2. Despite the hi-tech American operation to stamp out the Mujahedin, the battle of Fallujah did not put an end to the jihadist horrors. You can't remove n idea, even a nightmare, through surgery. Rather, it wa like a seed pod smashed open with a sledgehammer, spreading its spores across the country. Most of the guerrilla leaders had fled before the Americans close in. Already, in the north, Mosul was in flames, with insurgents taking over whole swathes of the city and the police force fleeing their bases in droves. Standing in a street reeking of decomposed bodies, in front of the wreck of a five story apartment block, the Kurdish army officer I had met believed that the horrors and destruction would put the people of Fallujah off supporting insurgents in the future.

    'When the people of Fallujah come back and see their houses, they will kick out any terrorist. This will be an example to all Iraqi cities,' he told me, recalling that in the Middle East, brute force had been the lingua franca of government for thousands of years. Wasted cities and strong leaders earned respect, he believed. In fact, what calmed Fallujah in the end was the strict cordon the marines imposed on it after the battle, making all residents undergo retina scans and security clearance checks before they were allowed back in. It not only tranquillized the city, but paralyzed it. A colleague of mine aptly described the pacified post-war city as resembling a lobotomized psychopath.

  3. "The Spiders of Allah; Travels of an Unbeliever on the Frontline of Holy War" by Jame Hider, "Times" (UK) Middle Eastern Bureau Chief; St. Martin's Griffin, N.Y. , 2009

  4. "Garryowen" from the 1941 film "They Died With Their Boots On", concluding with a speech by "Crazy Horse":