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The failed US face of Fallujah

by : Michael Schwartz
Monday December 20, 2004 - 23:30

By Michael Schwartz

The chilling reality of what Fallujah has become is only now seeping out, as the US military continues to block almost all access to the city, whether to reporters, its former residents, or aid groups such as the Red Crescent Society. The date of access keeps being postponed, partly because of ongoing fighting - only this week more air strikes were called in and fighting "in pockets" remains fierce (despite US pronouncements of success weeks ago) - and partly because of the difficulties military commanders have faced in attempting to prettify their ugly handiwork. Residents will now officially be denied entry until at least December 24; and even then, only the heads of households will be allowed in, a few at a time, to assess damage to their residences in the largely destroyed city.

With a few notable exceptions, the media have accepted the recent virtual news blackout in Fallujah. The ongoing fighting in the city, especially in "cleared" neighborhoods, is proving an embarrassment and so, while military spokesmen continue to announce American casualties, they now come not from the city itself but, far more vaguely, from "al-Anbar province", of which the city is a part. Fifty American soldiers died in the taking of the city; 20 more died in the following weeks - before the reports stopped. Iraqi civilian casualties remain unknown and accounts of what’s happened in the city, except from the point of view of embedded reporters (and so of US troops) remain scarce. With only a few exceptions (notably Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post), American reporters have neglected to cull news from refugee camps or Baghdad hospitals, where survivors of the siege are now congregating.

Intrepid independent and foreign reporters are doing a better job (most notably Dahr Jamail, whose dispatches are indispensable), but even they have been handicapped by lack of access to the city itself. At least Jamail did the next best thing, interviewing a Red Crescent worker who was among the handful of non-governmental organization personnel allowed briefly into the wreckage that was Fallujah.

A report by Katarina Kratovac of the Associated Press (picked up by the Washington Post) about military plans for managing Fallujah once it is pacified (if it ever is) proved a notable exception to the arid coverage in the major media. Kratovac based her piece on briefings by the military leadership, notably Lieutenant-General John F Sattler, commander of the Marines in Iraq. By combining her evidence with some resourceful reporting by Dahr Jamail (and bits and pieces of information from reports printed up elsewhere), a reasonably sharp vision of the conditions the US is planning for Fallujah’s "liberated" residents comes into focus. When they are finally allowed to return, if all goes as the Americans imagine, here’s what the city’s residents may face:

Entry to and exit from the city will be restricted. According to Sattler, only five roads into the city will remain open. The rest will be blocked by "sand berms" - read mountains of earth that will make them impassible. Checkpoints will be established at each of the five entry points, manned by US troops, and everyone entering will be "photographed, fingerprinted and have iris scans taken before being issued ID cards". Though Sattler reassured American reporters that the process would only take 10 minutes, the implication is that entry to and exit from the city will depend solely on valid identification cards properly proffered, a system akin to the pass-card system used during the apartheid era in South Africa.

Fallujans are to wear their universal identity cards in plain sight at all times. The ID cards will, according to Dahr Jamail’s information, be made into badges that contain the individual’s home address. This sort of system has no purpose except to allow for the monitoring of everyone in the city, so that ongoing US patrols can quickly determine whether someone is not a registered citizen or is suspiciously far from their home neighborhood.

No private automobiles will be allowed inside the city. This is a "precaution against car bombs", which Sattler called "the deadliest weapons in the insurgent arsenal". As a district is opened to repopulation, the returning residents will be forced to park their cars outside the city and will be bused to their homes. How they will get around afterward has not been announced. How they will transport reconstruction materials to rebuild their devastated property is also a mystery.

Only those Fallujans cleared through US intelligence vettings will be allowed to work on the reconstruction of the city. Since Fallujah is currently devastated and almost all employment will, at least temporarily, derive from whatever reconstruction aid the US provides, this means that the Americans plan to retain a life-and-death grip on the city. Only those deemed by them to be non-insurgents (based on notoriously faulty US intelligence) will be able to support themselves or their families.

Those engaged in reconstruction work - that is, those who are working at all - in the city may be organized into "work brigades". The best information indicates that these will be military-style battalions commanded by the US or Iraqi armed forces. Here, as in other parts of the plan, the motive is clearly to maintain strict surveillance over males of military age, all of whom will be considered potential insurgents.

In case the overarching meaning of all this has eluded you, Major Francis Piccoli, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which is leading the occupation of Fallujah, spelled it out for Kratovac: "Some may see this as a ’Big Brother is watching over you’ experiment, but in reality it’s a simply security measure to keep the insurgents from coming back." Actually, it is undoubtedly meant to be both; and since, in the end, it is likely to fail (at least, if the "success" of other US plans in Iraq is taken as precedent), it may prove less revealing of Fallujah’s actual future than of the failure of the US counterinsurgency effort in Iraq and of the desperation of American strategists.

In this context, the most revealing element of the plan may be the banning of all cars, the enforcement of which, all by itself, would make the city unlivable; and which therefore demonstrates both the impracticality of the US vision and a callous disregard for the needs and rights of the Fallujans.

These dystopian plans are a direct consequence of the fact that the conquest of Fallujah, despite the destruction of the city, visibly did not accomplish its primary goal - "to wipe out militants and insurgents and break the back of guerrillas in Fallujah". Even taking American kill figures at face value, the battle for the city was hardly a full-scale success. Before the assault on the city began, US intelligence estimated that there were 5,000 insurgents inside. Sattler himself conceded that the final official count was 1,200 fighters killed and no more than 2,000 suspected guerrillas captured. (This assumes, of course, that it was possible in the heat of the battle and its grim aftermath to tell whether any dead man of fighting age was an "insurgent", a "suspected insurgent", or just a dead civilian.) At least a couple of thousand resistance fighters previously residing in Fallujah are, then, still "at large" - not counting the undoubtedly sizable number of displaced residents now angry enough to take up arms. As a consequence, were the US to allow the outraged residents of Fallujah to return unmolested, they would simply face a new struggle in the ruins of the city (as, in fact, continues to be the case anyway). This would leave the extensive devastation of whole neighborhoods as the sole legacy of the invasion.

US desperation is expressed in a willingness to treat all Fallujans as part of the insurgency - the inevitable fate of an occupying army that tries to "root out" a popular resistance. As Sattler explained, speaking of the plan for the "repopulation" of the city, "Once we’ve cleared each and every house in a sector, then the Iraqi government will make the notification of residents of that particular sector that they are encouraged to return." In other words, each section of the city must be entirely emptied of life, so that the military can be sure not even one suspect insurgent has infiltrated the new order. (As is evident, this is but another US occupation fantasy, since the insurgents still hiding in the city have evidently proven all too adept at "repopulating" emptied neighborhoods themselves.)

The ongoing policy of house-to-house inspections, combined with ultra-tight security regulations aimed at not allowing suspected guerrillas to re-enter the city, is supposed to ensure that everyone inside the Fallujan perimeter will not only be disarmed but obedient to occupation demands and desires. The name tags and the high-tech identity cards are meant to guard against both forgeries and unlawful movement within the city. The military-style work gangs are to ensure that everyone is under close supervision at all times. The restricted entry points are clearly meant to keep all weapons out. Assumedly kept out as well will be most or all reporters (they tend to inflame public opinion), most medical personnel (they tend to "exaggerate" civilian casualties), and most Sunni clerics (they oppose the occupation and support the insurgency). We can also expect close scrutiny of computers (which can be used for nefarious communications), ambulances (which have been used to smuggle weapons and guerrillas), medicines (which can be used to patch up wounded fighters who might still be hiding somewhere), and so on.

It is not much of a reach to see that, at least in their fantasies, US planners would like to set up what sociologists call a "total institution". Like a mental hospital or a prison, Fallujah, at least as reimagined by the Americans, will be a place where constant surveillance equals daily life and the capacity to interdict "suspicious" behavior (however defined) is the norm. But "total institution" might be too sanitized a term to describe activities that so clearly violate international law as well as fundamental morality. Those looking for a descriptor with more emotional bite might consider one of those used by correspondent Pepe Escobar of Asia Times Online: either "American gulag" for those who enjoy Stalinist imagery or "concentration camp" for those who prefer the Nazi version of the same. But maybe we should just call it a plain old police (city-)state.

Where will such plans lead? Well, for one thing, we can confidently predict that nothing we might recognize as an election will take place in Fallujah at the end of January. (Remember, it was to liberate Fallujans from the grip of "terrorists" and to pave the way for electoral free choice that the administration of US President George W Bush claimed it was taking the city in the first place.) With the current date for allowing the first residents to return set for December 24 - heads of household only to assess property damage - and the process of repopulation supposedly moving step by step, from north to south, across neighborhoods and over time, it’s almost inconceivable that a majority of Fallujans will have returned by late January (if they are even willing to return under the conditions set by the Americans). Latest reports are that it will take six months to a year simply to restore electricity to the city. So organizing elections seems unlikely indeed.

The magnitude of the devastation and the brutality of the US plan are what’s likely to occupy the full attention of Fallujans for the foreseeable future - and their reactions to these dual disasters represent the biggest question mark of the moment. However, the history of the Iraq war thus far, and the history of guerrilla wars in general, suggest that there will simply be a new round of struggle, and that carefully laid military plans will begin to disintegrate with the very first arrivals. There is no predicting what form the new struggle will take, but the US military is going to have a great deal of difficulty controlling a large number of rebellious, angry people inside the gates of America’s new mini-police state. This is why the military command has kept almost all of the original attack force in the city, in anticipation of the need for tight patrols by a multitude of US troops. And it also explains why so many other locations around the country have suddenly found themselves without a US troop presence.

The Fallujah police-state strategy represents a sign of weakness, not strength. The new Fallujah imagined by American planners is a desperate, ad hoc response to the failure of the battle to "break the back of the guerrillas". Like the initial attack on the city, it, too, is doomed to failure, though it has the perverse "promise" of deepening the suffering of the Iraqis.

Michael Schwartz, professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, and on US business and government dynamics. His work on Iraq has appeared at TomDispatch, Asia Times Online and ZNet and in Contexts and Z Magazine. His books include Radical Politics and Social Structure, The Power Structure of American Business (with Beth Mintz), and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo) . His e-mail address is Ms42@optonline.net.

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