On Saturday, Dec. 3, the Washington Post ran two stories about what’s happening on the ground in Iraq. The first was on the front page above the fold, "10 Marines Killed in Fallujah Blast." The second was on page A19, "Leaving Najaf, One Step at a Time." Together, they provide insight into the conundrum of U.S. Iraq policy.
At the end of March 2004, five U.S. soldiers and four U.S. contractors were killed in Fallujah. The bodies of the four civilians were dragged through the streets and gruesomely displayed after being mutilated and burned. Almost certainly aware of how a similar public display of American soldiers dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 (depicted in the movie Black Hawk Down) resulted in the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Somalia, U.S. forces laid siege to Fallujah at the beginning of April. After three weeks of intensive fighting with an estimated 600 civilians killed a cease-fire was declared, U.S. forces withdrew, and Iraqi forces assumed responsibility for security in Fallujah. Today, Fallujah has a police force of about 1,200 officers and is also patrolled by two Iraqi battalions (supported by a U.S. Marine Corps battalion).
Since the April 2004 offensive against Fallujah, we have been led to believe that it has become one of the safest cities in Anbar province, considered the heartland of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency. But that does not mean that Fallujah has been completely peaceful. For example, prior to the Dec. 1 attack that killed 10 U.S. Marines, a suicide bomber killed seven U.S. Marines and wounded nine more on Sept. 6, 2004, and on June 23, 2005, a suicide bomber killed five U.S. Marines and a U.S. Navy sailor.
Compared to the spring of 2004, Fallujah is certainly a quieter and more stable city no longer wracked by almost daily violence (which is still the case in Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar). But the latest deadly attack raises the specter of a possible resurgence in violence. Within the span of less than a week, Fallujah’s mufti (top religious cleric), Hamza Abbas Assawi, was gunned down as he was leaving an evening prayer service; two days later, two U.S. Marines were killed by small arms fire; and then the next day the roadside bomb took the lives of 10 U.S. Marines. And it is not particularly reassuring to hear a U.S. Marine Corps officer responsible for patrolling Fallujah say that "you can’t say it’s safe here" and that "basically everyone here has the potential to be an insurgent."
So Fallujah may be a powder keg waiting to explode. Unfortunately, the likely fuse may be the United States. According to the Washington Post article:
"Residents still complain that heavily guarded checkpoints are dangerous and stifle economic activity and that U.S. soldiers on patrol are too willing to shoot first when encountering residents.
"’It seems we lose someone every week who is killed by the Americans for the wrong reasons,’ said Fawzi Muhammed, the deputy chairman of the city’s reconstruction committee, who said his cousin was shot dead by U.S. soldiers this year while standing in front of his home."
Despite losing a relative, fortunately at least for now Fawzi Muhammed appears not to have gone sour on the U.S. military presence: "Many things are not good, but I think compared to all of the cities in Anbar, Fallujah is the safest and the best." But is he the exception rather than the rule?
The other variable is the pace and progress of reconstruction in Fallujah. The April 2004 siege left much of the city in ruins. According to two residents returning to Fallujah in November 2004: "We were hoping the Americans would bring us a better life than we had" and "The U.S. forces didn’t reconstruct anything. They only destroy." To date, the Iraqi government has dispersed nearly $105 million to rebuild homes in Fallujah. But $105 million is probably not even enough to repair half the damage, as the State Department estimates that amount to be about 40 percent of the assessed value of the damaged properties. A taxi driver, Saad Khalifa, who returned to Fallujah in February found his home completely demolished and was only eligible for the maximum of $4,000 to rebuild his house. According to Khalifa, "We can build only one room and a kitchen with this money. They should rebuild the city. Not for the sake of its people, but because they have to prove that they are better than the fighters."
So Fallujah represents the hope of success, but while progress has been made success has so far been elusive. And if Fallujah’s residents come to view U.S. forces as trigger happy and U.S. reconstruction efforts too slow and inadequate, it is not hard to imagine the city once again becoming a haven for insurgents.
About 100 miles southeast of Fallujah, the city of Najaf is being held up as a potential model for handing over responsibility from the United States to Iraqis. Iraqi police and soldiers patrol the city of about 500,000 people. U.S. forces are 40 minutes away at a desert base called Camp Duke and venture into Najaf only when called upon by the Iraqis. According to Lt. Col. Jim Oliver, commander of a U.S. Army National Guard unit at Camp Duke, the situation is stable enough that "we could pull out all of our troops from Najaf." Yet although Najaf is being touted as an example for a U.S. exit strategy in Iraq, it is telling that U.S. troops have not been withdrawn and, according to Oliver, "I would rather hedge my bets and keep some presence here."
The problem with hedging is twofold. First, a U.S. military presence however small is still likely to be viewed as an occupying force and generate resentment among Iraqis. Second, if the security situation deteriorates, the United States runs the risk of being blamed for not being able to keep the peace.
So it is disquieting that President Bush appears to be hedging his bets. When he announced the "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" at the end of November (which was a tacit admission that the administration didn’t have a strategy for victory when they decided to go to war in March 2003 they simply hoped victory would fall into their laps based on rosy assumptions about U.S. forces being greeted as liberators, Iraqis embracing democracy, and no threat of an insurgency), President Bush told the midshipmen at Annapolis, "we’re working to build capable and effective Iraqi security forces, so they can take the lead in the fight and eventually take responsibility for the safety and security of their citizens without major foreign assistance." So even though the president claims that "as the Iraqi security forces stand up, coalition forces can stand down," one could read between the lines that the United States intends to maintain something less than a "major" military presence in Iraq rather than a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces.
But even if the U.S. forces can completely withdraw from Najaf, what might be the "success" they leave behind? President Bush’s vision is "a free society with inclusive democratic institutions." However, if left to their own devices and without the ominous presence of U.S. troops, is the democratic society envisioned by Bush what Iraqis in Najaf (or anywhere else) would choose? It is important to remember that Najaf is home to radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who waged fierce battles against coalition forces in the spring and summer of 2004 before a truce was negotiated and who has advocated Iraq being an Islamic state. Perhaps Sadr is simply waiting for U.S. forces to leave to make another bid to implement his vision for how Najaf should be governed. Alternatively, it could turn out that the people of Najaf actually want a more Islamic rather than secular government led by Sadr, who has a large and loyal following, or otherwise.
Fallujah represents the possibility of success, but also shows how the United States could be the impediment to that success. Najaf represents a model for success, but where success may not be what it seems either in terms of U.S. forces being able to withdraw or in achieving the desired end result. President Bush has grandiosely claimed that he "will settle for nothing less than complete victory" in Iraq. But this tale of two cities suggests that complete victory is unlikely and any victory perhaps only fleeting. If that is the case, an Iraq exit strategy to prevent further mounting losses and that accepts Iraq for what it is not what we want it to be is the far, far better thing to do.