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Fallujah is once again in the news, if not in the headlines. As usual this is due to an escalation in armed violence on its soil – but what has made Fallujah almost synonymous with the insurgency and the violence that has engulfed Iraq since 2003? IBC's Senior Researcher and Recent Events editor provides some essential context.

Besieged: Living and Dying in Fallujah

by Lily Hamourtziadou
19 Jun 2016

‘War is usually so traumatic an experience that generally it follows a course and has consequences quite unintended by the belligerents. To go to war is to roll the iron dice’ (Colin Gray, Strategy and History: Essays on Theory and Practice, Routledge, 2006, p. 87)

He died on the second day of the offensive. Tahsin Ali Abbas al-Saadi was a war correspondent covering the latest battle of Fallujah, to liberate the city from Islamic State control. In the photo he is smiling, looking away from the camera, a scarf around his neck, his young face like those of thousands of other young Iraqis who have met violent death in battles, shelling, air strikes, explosions. He died on May 23, 20161, the day after Iraqi PM Haider Al-Abadi announced the start of the latest assault on Fallujah.

‘The Iraqi army's assault on Falluja has begun what is expected to be one of the biggest battles ever fought against Islamic State, with the government backed by world powers including the United States and Iran, and determined to win back the first major Iraqi city that fell to the group in 2014’, write Maher Nazeh and Saif Hameed for Reuters2. 50,000 people are thought to be trapped inside the city, with limited access to food, or healthcare. Those who try to flee are killed. Those who disobey the Islamic State are summarily executed. As are those suspected of collaborating with security forces. Others fall victim to their own state army. Entire families commit suicide, after suffering from starvation and disease (‘Mass Suicide Becomes Only Solution in Fallujah’:

Other citizens confirmed that they are eating fodder for lunch. As for water, they receive it once per week on Monday and only for one hour. The citizens told Asharq Al-Awsat that suicide in their city is happening on a daily basis. They noted that starving Fallujah was preplanned as the government and coalition forces have been practicing mass punishment against the city, which resisted them during their invasion. 3

Fallujah, a bastion of the Sunni insurgency that fought both the US occupation and the Shi’ite-led Baghdad government that took over after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, is a city where US troops fought some of their biggest battles 2003-2011, a city that has been subjected to almost daily shelling by Iraqi forces since 2012. Between 2012 and June 2016, 1,627 civilians were killed by Iraqi forces. While under the control of the Islamic State, 2014-2016, 1,200 were killed by Islamic State fighters. During the same period, 78 Iraqi civilians were killed by coalition air strikes in Fallujah. And this year 18 (5 of them children) were reported to have starved to death. Overall, since the start of the ‘War on Terror’ more than 7,000 civilians have been killed in Fallujah.

Tahsin Ali Abbas al-Saadi was covering the latest ‘human catastrophe’ in Fallujah, but he would have been a young boy back in 2003, when his country was first attacked and occupied, starting an insurgency that continues 13 years on. He would have been just a boy when the first battles of Fallujah were fought in 2004.

‘Disproportionate force’: April 28 & 30, 2003

Local resentment was evident from the day US forces arrived on April 23, 2003. Five days later, on April 28, a demonstration calling for the soldiers to leave, including from a school building they were occupying, turned violent.  According to protesters, US soldiers fired on them without provocation, killing seventeen people and wounding more than seventy.4

4 Violent Response: The U.S. Army in al-Falluja, 16 Jun 2003

5‘...there was no clear evidence of shooting from the crowd, again suggesting that U.S. forces responded with disproportionate force.’, Ibid.

According to participants in the demonstration, the protest was peaceful. They chanted slogans like ‘God is great! Muhammad is his prophet!’ and ‘No to Saddam!  No to the US!’

 A total of seventeen persons were killed in the school shooting and seventy-five persons were wounded. Thirteen persons were killed at the scene, according to a local doctor, and their corpses were brought to the hospital for collection. An additional four persons died in the hospital over the following days.

At a protest in town two days later, April 30, 2003, a US military convoy opened fire killing three. According to Dr. Ahmad Ghanim al-`Ali, two people were killed right away and a third died during transfer to the hospital in al-Ramadi. Sixteen people were wounded.5 (IBC's pages for these two incidents and the people killed in them, with name, age and other details where known: x066 and x069.)

Two Battles of Fallujah in 2004

April 2004: 572–616 killed in siege of Fallujah

The First Battle of Fallujah, Operation Vigilant Resolve, was an operation to root out extremist elements of Fallujah and an act of retaliation to the killing of four US contractors in April 2004.

On 31 March 2004, Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah ambushed a convoy containing four American private military contractors from Blackwater USA. The four armed contractors were killed by machine gun fire and a grenade thrown through a window of their SUVs. A mob then set their bodies ablaze, and their corpses were dragged through the streets and hung.

On the night of 4 April 2004, American forces launched a major assault. 616 of the approximately 800 reported deaths were of civilians, with over 300 of these being women and children.

As reporters were barred from entering the city during the siege, IBC's number of 572–616 civilians killed6 is based on reported cumulative totals, rather than a series of individual reports, providing only glimpses of the totality of events that took place inside Fallujah.

One set of cumulative numbers was derived from growing hospital and NGO figures which had reached 600 by the 12th and ultimately passed 800, swelled by deaths during a series of nominal “ceasefires” as well as by the gradual recovery of bodies buried in the rubble of destroyed buildings or in makeshift graves in private gardens. The first 600 deaths included a breakdown showing that 160 women and 141 children under the age of 12 were among the dead.

November 2004: 581–670 killed in nine neighbourhoods

The Second Battle of Fallujah, Operation Al-Fajr and Operation Phantom Fury, was a joint American, Iraqi, and British offensive in November and December 2004.

In April, Fallujah had been defended by an estimated 1,500 insurgents. By November, it was estimated that the numbers had doubled. The assault began on 8 November 2004 and the fighting continued until 23 December 2004. In this battle, 581–670 civilians were killed in nine neighbourhoods of Fallujah.

The only well-sourced number to have appeared in mainstream outlets regarding these deaths comes from a report7 by Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a UN agency. The IRIN report is limited to bodies recovered ‘from rubble where houses and shops stood,’ doesn't include earlier recoveries of bodies from open areas and streets, and is confined to 9 of 27 neighbourhoods.

The IRIN figures: ‘more than 700’ bodies recovered, of which over 550 ‘were women and children’; ‘a very small number of men were found in these places and most were elderly’.

Since 2012, following the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, Anbar has been under daily and nightly attacks by Iraqi forces, as the Shia PM tried to suppress Sunni insurgency. The shelling of Fallujah and Ramadi has caused thousands of civilian deaths, while the arrival of IS forces has added a few more thousands.

Living in Fallujah now is living with insurgency, living with terrorism, living with air strikes and mortar attacks. Living in Fallujah is living with hunger and disease. Living in Fallujah is living in fear and despair. Living in Fallujah means death in explosions, death by fire, by bullet and by water, by lack of care and lack of food. Death came to Tahsin Ali Abbas al-Saadi as he tried to report yet another battle; it came to 18-year-old Hussein Merhij al-`Ubaidi as he protested, in April 2003; it was death by fire for 15 men burnt to death for trying to escape Islamic State in April of this year, their bodies hanging hog-tied over the flames.

Irregular warfare: insurgency and terrorism

Who were those insurgents who made their base in Fallujah, and who are these terrorists? Are they ‘Saddam’s men’? Are they ‘evil forces’? Are they ‘anti-western’? And what are they fighting for?

Certainly, their methods fall into the category of irregular warfare, which has been defined as ‘the use of violence by sub-state actors or groups within states for political purposes of achieving power, control and legitimacy, using unorthodox or unconventional approaches to warfare owing to a fundamental weakness in resources or capabilities.’ (James Kiras, ‘Irregular Warfare’, Understanding Modern Warfare, Cambridge UP, 2008, p. 232)

The recent history of Fallujah, after the 2003 invasion and occupation by US-led forces, is one of resistance through insurgency and terrorism, resistance to the foreign occupier and to its subsequent allied Iraqi state. Groups looking to challenge the US and its allies know their ability to dominate militarily almost every operational environment: land, sea, air, even near-Earth space. One response to superior conventional military power is to challenge superior established militaries using irregular forces, such as insurgents, terrorists and other paramilitary forces that can disperse, choose when, where and how to attack, then blend into the population.

After the fall of Baghdad in 2003, the US Secretary of Defense forbade the use of the term ‘insurgency’ to describe the violence, but spoke instead of ‘pockets of resistance’ in order to minimise the gravity of the threat and to create the impression of Western victory, in military and political terms, but also in terms of ‘hearts and minds’. It was important to show the gratitude and collaboration of the Iraqis with the occupying forces; it was equally important to draw attention away from the insurgency and its causes: At its core, irregular warfare is based on and caused by grievances, such as ethnic or religious persecution, foreign occupation or domination, or other perceived injustice.

In Fallujah, and in Iraq more generally, the types of insurgency we have seen are anarchist, aiming to weaken and destroy the existing order, apocalyptic-utopian, looking to mete out religious rewards or punishments, and traditionalist, trying to change the existing order to serve traditional norms. Most groups adopt irregular warfare because other forms of political violence are unavailable to them. They favour indirect and asymmetrical approaches to erode an adversary’s power, influence and will, but also to proselytise, coerce and intimidate. They try to gain supporters, both local and international, at the same time causing enough instability and spreading enough fear to prevent the local population from assisting their enemies. Any such attempts regularly result in public summary executions.

Guerrilla tactics are conducted to achieve operational and strategic goals, short and long-term: to weaken the resolve of their political adversaries and cause the withdrawal of competing occupying or government forces. The subsequent vacuum is then filled by the insurgent political structure.

Terrorist groups target the non-combatant civilian population and symbols associated with the state (police, military, government employees and buildings etc) to spread fear. ‘Groups choose terrorism as a means of using the severely limited resources at their disposal in unorthodox and dramatic attacks, which are often reported by media outlets, in order to compel or persuade one or more target audiences’ (Kiras, 2008, p. 234) and to demonstrate their power and reach.

Living and dying in Fallujah have changed little since 2003. The ‘city of mosques’ has been home to over 300,000, or roughly 1 per cent of Iraq's population; civilians and militia, Al-Qaeda and IS fighters, living, fighting, starving and perishing in violence, under siege or under sentence of death. Fallujah's deaths from violence are some five times higher than the national average: how many will have lost their lives in this latest battle will take time to ascertain. But one thing is already certain: once recorded and documented, their deaths will only be added to many thousands of other Iraqis in the memorial of this war, of its crimes and history. In that respect, Fallujah is not unique but simply worst among equals.