Commentary: Fallujah Revisited
29 November 2006
By Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV
Multi-National Force-Iraq Spokesman
If you follow the news coming out of Iraq, you have seen too many headlines about the bloodshed in Baghdad in recent days. As American servicemen and women prepare to spend a fourth holiday season trying to help build a new Iraq, these headlines have led some people to conclude that our mission may be hopeless.
However, my recent visit to Fallujah has reaffirmed my strong conviction that as bad as the situation may sometimes appear, there is still reason to be optimistic for Iraq’s future.
Although it has been out of the headlines for some time, take a minute to recall why the name Fallujah resonates so strongly in our collective memory. Perhaps the most disturbing images of Operation Iraqi Freedom emanated from Fallujah on March 31, 2004, as the bodies of four murdered American contractors were desecrated and the charred corpses hung off the Euphrates River Bridge for the world to see. The “Fallujah Brigade,” a unit comprised of former Iraqi army officers, failed to prevent warlords allied with Al Qaeda in Iraq from effectively taking over the city. Foreign fighters and terrorist insurgents imposed a Taliban-like regime over the city, torturing and beheading innocent people who just wanted to enjoy the freedoms that resulted from the fall of Saddam Hussein. (One torture chamber later uncovered included cages in the basement and a wall covered with bloody hand prints). With more than 100,000 explosive rounds stockpiled in weapons caches throughout the city, these invaders of Fallujah exported scores of suicide bombers bent on mass murder. The population of Fallujah fled in droves, reducing the number of residents to only 50-60,000. By October 2004, Fallujah was a city without security, without stability, and seemingly without hope.
In order to rescue the people of Fallujah and eliminate it as a base of operations for Al Qaeda, Coalition forces launched Operation Al Fajr, or “The Dawn.” Led by American Marines, Coalition Forces battled 2-3,000 terrorists in fierce and sustained urban combat. Although Fallujah was liberated, half the city was decimated by the intense combat.
What has happened to Fallujah since that ferocious battle?
Last week, I saw a city of 350,000 people who have made incredible progress over the past two years. In the aftermath of Operation Al Fajr, in March of 2005, there were 3,000 United States Marines and only 300 Iraqi Security Forces in Fallujah. Today, the people of the city are protected by 1,500 members of their own Iraqi Security Force and only 300 Marines. The police are comprised of native Fallujans, and enjoy strong support from the local population. They are able to patrol their own neighborhoods, enforce their own laws, and handle the transition to responsibility for their own security and growth. Despite the sectarian violence which plagues other parts of the country, I saw the commander of the local Iraqi Army unit, a Shi’a, sit and work productively with the local police chief, a Sunni – a relationship few would have believed possible in Fallujah just a year ago.
I attended a city council meeting, where a democratically elected mayor and city council led the deliberations about the peoples’ business. To be honest, the Council’s discussion of traffic control was not exciting. But the mundane business of a functioning democracy can be uneventful when its institutions are working properly. At the same time, it was exciting to witness democracy in action on soil that once seemed entirely inhospitable. Membership of the Fallujah Business Association has grown from only 20 members last February to over 350 today, demonstrating optimism for economic growth. I even saw a processing center where Fallujah welcomes persons displaced by instability elsewhere.
Fallujah’s transition has not been easy. Terrorists and insurgents are waging a brutal campaign of murder and intimidation against the city’s government and police force. Unemployment remains high, and there is still much rebuilding to be done. But Colonel Larry Nicholson and the young Marines of Regimental Combat Team-5 firmly believe they have turned Fallujah into a model of what Iraq can become. Iraqis themselves support this hope, as families have been arriving in Fallujah en masse to seek shelter from instability in other parts of Iraq.
In October 2004, the world saw the incredible courage of the Coalition Force, as Marines did their part to create hope for Iraqis. Today, visitors to Fallujah can see the courage of Iraqis for themselves.
Difficult times remain ahead for the U.S. and Coalition Forces in Iraq. Many sacrifices remain to be made by both U.S.servicemen and women and their Iraqi partners in Fallujah. But the city is an example of what can be achieved when courageous leaders, brave security forces, and hard-working citizens unite for a common goal – a secure and unified future. The progress in Fallujah demonstrates that with time and effort, recovery is possible in Iraq in the wake of brutal violence.