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The Fallujah Problem
A job that needs doing.


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Michael Rubin

On June 24, 2004, bombs exploded in three Iraqi cities, killing at least 80. The attacks are not resistance, they are terrorism. The perpetrators targeted civilians and sought to kill and maim as many innocents as possible in order to shake confidence and win political advantage. The attacks in Ramadi, Baquba, and Mosul come less than two months after U.S. Marine General James Conway announced a deal to lift the U.S. Marine’s 1st Expeditionary Force’s siege of Fallujah.

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While the Iraqi Defense Minister Ali Allawi disavowed the deal, the newly-created Fallujah Brigade assumed responsibility for security in the troubled town. Islamists in Fallujah interpreted the deal as a victory over the United States. Militants drove through the streets chanting, “We redeem Islam with our blood,” as Minaret-mounted loudspeakers lauded “victory over the Americans.”

Senior administration officials publicly affirmed support for the deal soon after it was announced. Traveling in Berlin, Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “…We want to help the people of Fallujah. We want peace in Fallujah, not war in Fallujah. And we won’t have to take this to a military climax.” Privately, though many senior White House officials took a wait-and-see approach.

Yesterday’s bombings and the threat both to assassinate Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and disrupt next Wednesday’s transfer of sovereignty indicate that the time to wait is over. The role of U.S. troops into the next phase of operations is to guarantee rule of law and general security.

The nest of terrorism which Fallujah has become presents a direct challenge to Iraqi democracy. Rooting out terrorism in Fallujah need not antagonize Iraqi Sunni Arabs, even if Al Jazeera correspondents seek to portray it as an attack on Islam. After all, the June 24 car bombings targeted Sunni Arabs, not Americans. When a car bomb exploded a few blocks from my house last February killing 53 Iraqis, there were two strains of thought. The conspiracy theorists suggested that the explosion was caused by a missile fired by a U.S. aircraft in order to create an excuse to derail elections. Most Iraqis, however, acknowledged the blast to be the work of terrorists, but blamed the Coalition for failing to secure the borders. Iraqis will blame us whether or not we cordon off Fallujah, so we might as well do the right thing.

The problem is Fallujah, and not occupation. The day before announcement of the Fallujah deal, the Washington Post interviewed several U.S. military officials. They reported that “a large number of roadside bombs and car bombs detonated elsewhere in Iraq may have been manufactured in Fallujah.” According to one military intelligence official, “Fallujah is a place that is rife with terrorist leaders and bomb-makers who are responsible for attacks not just in Fallujah but across Iraq.”

During April’s siege, diplomats could debate the merits of a deal. Now they cannot. Between April 6 and April 30, the period of siege, there were five bombings. Since the creation of the Fallujah brigade, there have been more than 30 bombings. Self-righteous human-rights activists who condemned the siege of Fallujah have Iraqi blood on their hands today, and yet remain silent. Rumors are rife through Baghdad that there will be dozens of car bombs on June 30 and July 1 as insurgents seek to challenge the new government and rattle American confidence.

The failure of the Fallujah experiment undercuts the conventional wisdom that Bremer erred with his decision to dissolve the Iraqi military. Not only does such a complaint skew reality (the bulk of the Iraqi army were Shia conscripts who returned home long before the dissolution order), but it also sheds light on the activity of senior generals who had attained their positions not through technocratic competence but rather because of loyalty to Saddam. Nevertheless, the “peace” negotiated by Saddam’s former generals brought out pundits who singled out Bremer or Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz for abandonment of Iraq’s officer corps. Former intelligence official Pat Lang for example, told the Christian Science Monitor, “What that [ceasefire] essentially reveals is how big a mistake it was to get rid of the old Army.” General Anthony Zinni identified the dissolution of the Iraqi army as the biggest mistake of the occupation in a May 23 interview on 60 Minutes. “I blame the civilian leadership of the Pentagon directly,” he told correspondent Steve Kroft.

Baathist generals have had the run of Fallujah for more than eight weeks. While Baathism at its roots is a secular though extreme form of Arab nationalism, such divisions blurred during the last 12 years of Saddam’s rule. In 1991, Saddam added “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “God is Great,” to the Iraqi flag in his own handwriting. He supported Sunni extremism in Fallujah, but kept its export to other towns in check. Left to their own device, militant Islam took root. “We must capitalize on our victory over the Americans and implement Islamic sharia laws,” Sunni cleric Abdul-Qadir al-Alussi told the Associated Press on May 25, 2004. On June 13, 2004, USA Today reported that the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was less than satisfied with the performance of the former Iraqi generals. “This was a noble experiment that may not work out,” Col. Larry Brown said. “The brigade has not performed as well as we had hoped.” Col. Brown may have understated the case. Former Iraqi army officers have failed in their promise to apprehend those guilty of the mutilation of four American civilian contractors on March 31. Rather than expel foreign fighters, the Fallujah Brigade protects them. The Brigade has also not affected the surrender of heavy weapons. Meanwhile, free from the pressure of the siege, insurgents in Fallujah have regrouped, reequipped, and reorganized in the run-up to the June 30 transfer of sovereignty.

The only difference between compromise and appeasement is historic retrospect. In the case of Fallujah, the results are in. Negotiations and compromise work when both sides are sincere, but anyone willing to engage in terrorism is insincere. De-Baathification and the dismissal of senior generals was not a mistake. Rather, reliance on Saddam’s henchmen was. In the case of Fallujah, it may be time for the Marines to finish the job they began last April, free from the interference of diplomats. The future of Iraq may depend on it.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.



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