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Two views of Fallujah – which tells us more about the future?

23 April 2008

One consistent oddity of the Iraq War is that we read two streams of reports about it, so different that they might be of different wars.  Here are two such.  One from a mainstream media source.  One from Michael Totten, one of the best-known war-bloggers.  Both are balanced, Totten’s especially so, but they give us alternative perspectives.  Which tells us about the future of Iraq and our war?

Hope for Iraq’s Meanest City“, Michael J. Totten (13 April 2008), also published in City Journal – Except:

The insurgency arose in Fallujah before spreading to the rest of the country. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the insurgents—now on the run elsewhere in Iraq—were first beaten here in the City of Mosques.

… When American soldiers and Marines abandoned Fallujahin the early days of the war, it wasn’t ready to stand on its own. They are more certain now that their work is nearly finished. Almost all the Army soldiers have left, and only two jobs remain for the Marines: repairing the city; and preparing the local authorities to stand on their own. Most of the effort goes into training the Iraqi police.

… Fallujah’s worst days are likely behind it. “The al-Qaida leadership outside dumped huge amounts of money and people and arms into Anbar Province,” says Lieutenant Colonel Mike Silverman, who oversees an area just north of Ramadi. “They poured everything they had into this place. The battle against Americans in Anbar became their most important fight in the world. And they lost.”

Five Years On, Fallujah in Tatters“, Ali al-Fadhily and Dahr Jamail, Inter Press Service, 14 April 2008 — Except:

Fallujah remains a crippled city more than two years after the November 2004 U.S.-led assault.  Unemployment, and lack of medical care and safe drinking water in the city 60 km west of Baghdad remain a continuous problem. Freedom of movement is still curtailed.

 Totten paints a picture of life in Fallujah.

Marines also took the vitally important step of surrounding Fallujah with concrete Jersey and Texas barriers, forcing all incoming traffic through checkpoints manned by Iraqi police. Visitors can no longer bring cars in — they must park outside the city limits and walk — and locals must affix resident stickers to their windshields. High-tech surveillance cameras monitor every inch of ground outside the city; sneaking in is impossible.

Perhaps it’s fitting that people as provincial and, yes, medieval-minded as these live in a place that’s as fortified as a thirteenth-century walled city. (One Marine describes Fallujahas “the Dark Ages with TVs and cars”; Iraqis think of this city in much the same way.) The barriers were unattractive, so the Americans hired local artists to paint murals on them depicting ancient Iraqi and Babylonian architecture, idyllic scenes from greener countries than this, and messages of peace in Arabic calligraphy. 

The barriers don’t merely separate the city from the rest of Iraq; they separate neighborhoods from one another, too. Foot traffic isn’t restricted, but no one can drive from one neighborhood to another without passing through a police checkpoint. Smuggling weapons is prohibitively difficult. Anyone who wants to set off a car bomb will have to content himself with blowing up his own neighborhood. The walls are a major hassle, but they work. Fallujah’s most recent car bomb exploded last July.

The barriers also divide each section of the city into intimately patrollable precincts. Inside these precincts, U.S. Marines and Iraqi police have forged a straightforward agreement with civilians: we’ll keep you safe if you identify insurgents and lead us to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and weapons caches.

Americans no longer patrol in Humvees, as they did at the peak of the insurgency. Instead, the Marines have embedded themselves, so to speak, in Fallujah’s communities. They have transformed large rented houses into Joint Security Stations that look and feel like low-budget university co-ops, where they share sleeping quarters, eating areas, movie rooms, and makeshift gyms with Iraqi police. They live together, work together, study Arabic and English together, and, above all, patrol their own neighborhoods together.

This is community policing, Fallujah-style, and so far it has been even more effective than similar programs that have turned around rough U.S. neighborhoods, from New York City to Portland, Oregon.

The IPS story paints the same scene in different colors.

… Now a less visible form of destruction is being spread, he said. “The new wave of destruction is represented by tearing the social tissue apart. The Americans are paying tremendous amounts of money to get people of Fallujah to fight each other.”

The road into Fallujah from the main Amman-Baghdad highway is safer today, but nobody is allowed into Fallujah who is not from the city and can prove it by providing elaborate identity documentation. That can only be obtained by undergoing biometric identification by the U.S. military — a process which includes retina scans, body searches and finger-printing before issuance of a bar-coded ID badge.

The city remains sealed. Many residents refer to it as a big jail.

“Being sealed for five years, Fallujahhas lost all aspects of natural life,” Ahmad Hamid, a former member of the city council told IPS. “A man who has lived most of his life mixing with British and American people told us in 2003 that we could not reach any agreement because they (Americans) look at Fallujah as a centre of Iraqi people’s unity. He told us Iraq would be divided into regions, provinces and even tribes, but we in the council did not listen to him.”

… Medically speaking, “the siege is total,” a doctor who gave his name as Dr. Kamal told the press recently, speaking of the lack of drugs, oxygen, electricity and clean water at Fallujah General hospital.

U.S. military officials say reconstruction is under way, and that aid is being provided to hospitals. People see little of that.

“The brutal destruction of Fallujah by the American army was not followed by any reconstruction, as if the city is being punished for its attitude against the occupation,” said an engineer in Fallujah, Kaltan Fadhil.  Water and electricity supply, health facilities and roads were provided “in a way that only made some people who collaborated with Americans richer,” he said. “It was no more than repainting some buildings to make them look nicer for a while, and then new contracts were announced to rehabilitate what was already rehabilitated.”

Update:  Another report by Totten from Fallujah, with pictures of rebuilding:  “Builders of Nations” (8 April 2008).

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling). 

For more information about the different reports we see about the Iraq War

  1. Three blind men examine the Iraq Elephant (6 February 2008)
  2. The oddity of reports about the Iraq War (13 March 2008) — Some theories why after 5 years we still debate basic things about the Iraq War.
  3. War porn (25 March 2008) – Discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the war-bloggers’ reporting in Iraq.
  4. More views of the events at Basra (2) — bloggers and war-bloggers (28 March 2008) – Contrast the war bloggers’ reports with those of some experts.
  5. A rebuttal to “War Porn” (it takes 2 sides to have a discussion)(29 March 2008) — Someone writes a defense of the war bloggers, and my reply.
  6. A look at the writings of “war blogger” Michael J. Totten (31 March 2008) – extracts of his posts from 2003 – 2005.
  7. An email discussion with Michael Totten (31 March 2008)
  8. Evidence of the war bloggers’ growing influence (2 April 2008)
  9. Basra, a test case: war blogger’s vs. experts (2 April 2008)
  10. Experts’ views about the recent fighting in Basra (2 April 2008)
  11. Sources of the Instapundit’s knowledge — analysis or cartoons? (3 April 2008)
  12. Some comments by Bill Roggio, Editor of the Long War Journal (3 April 2008)
  13. Archive of links to articles about the Iraq War — My articles,
  14. Our Goals and Benchmarks for the Expedition to Iraq
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 April 2008 2:53 am

    IPS is not a mainstream news agency. They identify largely as an “alternative” independent news source with a pronounced left wing viewpoint, producing advocate journalism with the desire to advance the interests of marginalized groups. This is not a knock at their coverage (which is often detailed) or their opinions (Jim Lobe and Leon Hadar often have insightful articles for them), but just to note the nature of the source.
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    Fabius Maximus: These definitions are of course subjective. I meant “mainstream” in the sense that they are a large business, paid for their work, and operating in the “mainstream” of western opinion. Not bloggers or Party newspapers. Your comments could as easily apply to The Guardian.

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    In Europe the media organizations are more open and honest about their political viewpoints, which I prefer.

  2. 23 April 2008 7:00 am

    Ah, I see. I thought you were using “mainstream” in an exclusively American context. And yes, I also agree with your second point.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: It is perhaps usually a good bet to assume Americans are parochial. But not always!

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