Fallujah, a Year Later

It was a year ago this week that the Marines and Army went into Fallujah to kill off the insurgency there. Since the fighting ended, Fallujah has mostly disappeared from the news. There was some fitful coverage of the resettlement and rebuilding effort after the battle. Every once in a while, the city’s name shows up in a casualty report when an insurgent bomb goes off there.

One attention-getting episode of the Fallujah offensive involved journalist/blogger Kevin Sites. Shooting video for NBC, he got footage of a Marine killing an apparently helpless and perhaps already mortally wounded insurgent (Navy investigators later found the Marine acted in self-defense and within the rules of war when he shot the Iraqi). Many on the right denounced Sites as a traitor. He soon left Iraq.

Where is Sites today? Well, he’s got a fancy new blog site on Yahoo! called Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone. A tad on the Geraldo side, title-wise, maybe, but I always found Sites to be painstakingly honest in his attempt to balance his own personal reactions to what he sees against his duty to report what’s happening and letting his subjects — especially the U.S. troops he spends time with — say their piece.

This week, he’s back in Fallujah, taking stock of the city a year after the battle. Upon entering the city, the Marine unit he’s with is warned of a possible bomb nearby:

“The threat of a roadside bomb seems to reinforce the memories I have of the city, and so do the many shattered facades of buildings neither demolished nor rebuilt an entire year later.

“Yet while many signs of the battle’s ferocity remain, I also notice something else: the streets are filled with people.

“Shops are open, some operating out of buildings with just three walls or partial roofs. Cars and trucks travel the road alongside children coming from school. There is here a sense of normalcy as well.

“The Marines cannot provide precise figures on how many people returned to their homes in Fallujah after last year’s battle, but some estimates have it as high as two-thirds of the population.”

It’s a glimpse, anyway, of what the rebuilding of Iraq looks like.

Making Friends, Influencing People: Iraq Edition

A friend and fellow Land of Lincoln native, Ayla Jean Yackley (she hails from Ottawa, on the banks of the mighty Illinois River), has been working as a correspondent for Reuters in Turkey (her mom’s family is Turkish, I think, and Ayla speaks the language) for several years. She passed on a press release yesterday from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists about an ugly incident involving U.S. soldiers, three Reuters employees, and an NBC photographer near Fallujah last year. According to the release (and Reuters offers a similar account, too):

“The three Reuters employees, along with Ali Mohammed Hussein al-Badrani, a cameraman working for NBC, were covering the aftermath of the downing of a U.S. helicopter when they were detained by U.S. troops on Jan. 2, 2004. The four were taken to a U.S. base near Fallujah and released three days later without charge.

“The Reuters employees allege that while detained, they were beaten and deprived of sleep. They said they were forced to make demeaning gestures as soldiers laughed, taunted them, and took photographs, Reuters has reported. Two alleged they were forced to put shoes in their mouths, and to insert a finger into their anus and then lick it.”

The news from both Reuters and the CPJ release was that the Pentagon, which never interviewed the men who made the allegations, has decided that it’s satisfied with its investigation and is dropping the matter.

Now, in a place where so many have died such awful deaths, this is not an example of the worst savagery of the Iraq war. But what’s just as disturbing as the original allegations is the Pentagon’s apparent complacency about this kind of behavior in the ranks.

Yesterday’s News

Remember during November’s big fight in Fallujah when NBC videojournalist/independent blogger Kevin Sites filmed a Marine shooting a wounded and apparently unarmed Iraqi insurgent? Some denounced the shooting as little more than murder, many more denounced Sites as little more than a traitor, and the military announced … it would investigate. Big controversy.

That was all of three and a half months ago, and the incident has been mostly forgotten. The Marine is reportedly at Camp Pendleton. Kevin Sites left Iraq and covered the tsunami aftermath in Southeast Asia (and won an award earlier this week for his blog). And the military either has or has not come to a conclusion about whether the shooting was justified.

Two days ago, CBS News reported that Navy investigators “believe the situation is ambiguous enough that no prosecutor could get a conviction.” Thus, CBS said, he wouldn’t be charged in the shooting. Thursday, the Marines rushed to deny the report and issued statements that the investigation hasn’t been completed and no decision on charges has been made one way or the other. But the denials aren’t directly contradicting the CBS report if you read them carefully: They emphasize that the inquiry isn’t finished, which the CBS story also acknowledges. And the CBS story adds that regardless of the decision on a homicide or war-crimes prosecution, the Marine could still face some sort of internal sanctions from the Corps.

Tale of a Remade City

Yes, a vote will happen in Iraq later this month, and it will be a remarkable feat. Whether it amounts to an election and how many people will die in the course of trying to stop it and trying to make it succeed remains to be seen. But here’s a story you need to keep in mind when you listen to the comfortable people, safe in Washington or, if they’re quite daring, in Baghdad’s Green Zone, talk about the march of liberty they’re leading.

It’s a dark fairy tale, really, and it has taken place in Fallujah, a city that’s not a fantasy. Just two months ago, our president and his commanders launched wave after wave of young men into the city, a stronghold for the anti-American insurgency. Scores of those young men died and hundreds were wounded. On the other side, facing the best-trained and best-armed military in the world, hundreds of other young men died, too. In the aftermath, the city looked much like any other battlefield: a ruined place, a place where sanctioned murder had taken place on a large scale.

Despite the grim scene — after two weeks of battle, many of the blown-apart enemy fighters were still lying in the streets — U.S. commanders and civilian officials said they were ready to put Fallujah back together again. The hundreds of thousands of residents who had fled the violent prelude to the battle would be welcomed back. Millions and millions and millions of dollars would be spent to make the city a peaceful and prosperous place. And it would all happen quickly. Grateful Fallujans would get to vote in the elections at the end of January. Like everything else Iraq is to become with our help, it sounded great and not all that hard to figure out or get done.

But first, the Americans had to find and eliminate the last enemy fighters. They had to pump sewage out of the streets and truck in drinking water and get the electrical system working again. And, finally, before the people of Fallujah could come back, the U.S. military needed to devise a way to make sure enemy fighters didn’t come back among the future peaceful and prosperous citizens. A strict identification system was suggested, including retina scans, a DNA database, and badges that would be displayed at all times. Security comes at a price.

But something’s not working. U.S. troops control the city, but they can’t seem to weed out all the guerrillas. Putting the city back together has proved much harder than the optimistic Americans guessed. Foul water still stands in the streets. There’s still little power, and that situation is unlikely to improve for months. The districts where the fighting was fiercest are still wrecked.

And the Fallujans?

Despite all that’s been done for them and all that’s promised, they appear reluctant to come back to their renewed city. In the last several weeks, about 85,000 of them, less than a third of the city’s pre-battle population, have lined up for the hours-long wait at the American checkpoints outside town. After they’re cleared to enter, they go to see what’s left of their homes. They seem angry with the destruction they find. Some talk of exacting revenge on those they believe responsible. Fewer than 10,000 have decided to stay in the city; the rest prefer refugee camps or whatever makeshift arrangements they’ve made to survive until the trouble passes.

So, where’s the new Fallujah our military and officials promised? A guess: The same place as Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. The same place as Saddam’s cooperation with al Qaida. The same place as our easy victory in a nation that would greet us as liberators. All just stories, it turns out, but with real enough consequences for all the people who have died to find that out and for the rest of us, too.

Now the same people who spun these tales have crafted the inspiring story of Iraqi democracy. Let’s hope we’ll be able to find some trace of it before we go on to our next adventure.

Fallujah After the Battle

A quick roundup on how U.S. military and media sources have described the reconstruction and resettlement of Fallujah since the battle in November.

Fallujah Reconstruction Effort to Begin Soon

American Forces Press Service

November 19, 2004

Fallujah reconstruction to begin

Army News Service

December 6, 2004

Returning Fallujans will face clampdown

Boston Globe

December 5, 2004

Pockets of Resistence Remain in Fallujah, Myers Says

DefenseLINK News

December 14, 2004

Fallujah Residents Return to Ruins

The News and Observer (on Military.com)

December 24, 2004

In Fallujah, Marines Try a New Tactic

Los Angeles Times (on Boston.com)

January 9, 2005

Fallujah Residents Angry over Destruction

The Associated Press (in the MInneapolis Star-Tribune)

January 11, 2005

As Residents Return to Fallujah, Marines Help Them Rebuild

DefenseLINK News

January 12, 2005

Fallujah voters still scattered by war trauma

The Washington Times

January 13, 2005