Despite Agreement, Insurgents Rule Fallujah
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 7, 2004; Page A15
FALLUJAH, Iraq -- The travelers entered Fallujah first through a checkpoint operated by the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, a U.S.-trained paramilitary unit meant to add muscle to the American-led occupation. The men in black berets distractedly waved cars past, onto the city's main street.
Then it became apparent who was really in charge. A few yards in, wild-eyed young men in masks pulled cars over at will, searched them and demanded identification documents. No one could leave or enter without passing muster. Other groups of fighters in masks roamed side streets and alleys, brandishing rifles at all sorts of angles.
It was not supposed to be like this. Under an agreement made last month with U.S. Marine commanders, a new force called the Fallujah Brigade, led by former officers from Saddam Hussein's demobilized army, was to safeguard the city. The unruly gunmen -- many of them insurgents who battled the Marines through most of April -- were supposed to give way to Iraqi police and civil defense units.
Instead, the brigade stays outside of town in tents, the police cower in their patrol cars and the civil defense force nominally occupies checkpoints on the city's fringes but exerts no influence over the masked insurgents who operate only a few yards away.
The Marines gave the brigade the task of apprehending the killers of four American contractors whose bodies were burned, mutilated and hung from a bridge in March, capturing foreign fighters and disarming the insurgents. None of that has happened.
President Bush endorsed the Fallujah solution on the grounds that it made "security a shared responsibility." But the sight of insurgents still in control of byways and the kidnapping of foreigners and Iraqis with impunity suggests that they are sharing their power with no one.
Moreover, continuing mayhem on Fallujah's outskirts raises the question of whether the Americans have simply created a safe haven for anti-occupation fighters. On Saturday, a Fallujah-based group calling itself the Mujaheddin Battalions announced it was transferring its fight to Baghdad -- but was still committed to the truce in its home city.
Fallujah byways are a hell of roadside bombs and ambushes. On Friday, an armored sport-utility vehicle carrying this Washington Post reporter and his driver was attacked close to Fallujah on the main highway to Baghdad. Four men in an orange-and-white taxi pumped dozens of bullets from AK-47 assault rifles into the vehicle for more than two minutes, each round causing a loud thump on the vehicle's metal plating and reinforced windows. They shot from behind, from in front and from the sides, where their determined frowns and mustached faces were clearly visible, as they and we weaved down the highway at 90 mph. The fusillade stopped when the SUV, its back tires missing and its rear windows shattered, spun out of control. The gunmen sped down the road, evidently thinking their mission was accomplished. Neither the driver nor the reporter was injured.
Marines were once determined to put an end to the threats in and around Fallujah. After the April fighting, they were poised to stage a full-blown assault on Fallujah, but a public outcry over casualties and calls from Iraqi allies for a negotiated solution led to the new arrangement. A similar dynamic has slowed the U.S. pursuit of Shiite Muslim rebels in southern Iraq, where fear of igniting a broader revolt has stayed the hand of U.S. forces. So far, two cease-fires have been called in the south.
In Fallujah, despite the compromise, the Marines' brash adversaries dominate the streets. Yet no U.S. offensive is in the works.
"We don't intend to go in wholesale. There's no doubt we could clear Fallujah out, but to what end?" asked Col. Larry Brown, an operations officer with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force camped outside the city. "We measure progress in small steps. We prefer to bring them back into the fold slowly. It is a good sign that Iraqis are handling their problems."
Brown acknowledged that Marines were concerned that Fallujah could become a guerrilla staging area, but said, "it is only supposition that Fallujah is a sanctuary for insurgents. If it is in any way, then the deal's off. There is probably a small contingent of hard-core gunmen there," he said.
"Inevitably, if we went in, there would be a lot of collateral damage. People would defend their homes. We would only go as a last resort," Brown said.
Fallujah, about 35 miles west of Baghdad in an area known as the Sunni Triangle, has been a center of anti-occupation rebellion among Sunni Muslims for more than a year. It is a city renowned for smugglers and for supplying recruits for Hussein's army and security services. It is also known for piety; residents call Fallujah "the city of 100 mosques," several of which were used as redoubts for fighters firing on Marines.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company