Michael Totten

After the Battle of Al-Fajr

FALLUJAH, IRAQ — Fallujah is known as the City of Mosques. It is also a city of walls, and of war.
It was a quieter city than most after the initial invasion in 2003. There was less looting than in Baghdad, and the mayor was pro-American. It was tranquil for the most part. But resentment first simmered, then exploded in an orgy of mob violence on March 31, 2004, when four security contractors from the Blackwater corporation were murdered, mutilated, and strung up from a bridge.
Blackwater Bridge.jpg
Photo Copyright Associated Press
The following month U.S. Army soldiers and Marines were sent in to clear the city, then were pulled back for political reasons before the mission was finished. The insurgents won the first round and gained total control of the city. Taliban-style rule had come to Iraq. In November of the same year the Americans went back in and fought the massive epic battle known as Al-Fajr, or Dawn.
I met two Marines who have returned to Fallujah after the fighting in that battle. They belong to the 3rd Battalion 5th Regiment’s India Company and are based now at a train station on the northern edge of the city that has been turned into a Forward Operating Base that keeps its part of the city secure.
Train Station Fallujah.jpg
Train Station FOB, India Company
None of the 3/5 Marines — in India Company or any other — have been killed or even wounded since their current tour began in the summer this year.
“What was the fighting like then?” I asked Corporal Brandon Koch.
“In 2004 it was either intense or it was nothing at all,” he said. “We were going from door to door, going in houses. There was always that rush right before you go in the door, but most of the time when you go in there wouldn’t be anything there. So you go from a high to a low real quick. Of course if there was somebody there you’d stay at the high. It was definitely different. There wasn’t much that we had trained on. We were mostly trained for regular conventional warfare. It was totally different from anything else I’ve done since then, that’s for sure.”
Corporal Koch Fallujah.jpg
Corporal Brandon Koch
Fallujah today is an impoverished ramshackle mess, but it’s not a war zone anymore. In 2004 it was by far the worst place in the country. It was still a hotbed of insurgent activity as recently as the first half of 2007.
“The unit we relieved was monitoring the city, watching the city,” Corporal Koch said. “We took that over from them. Then we started our push. It was a couple of months before the regular civilians got back in the city.”
“Months after you came in?” I said.
“We came in in November, on November 6th,” he said. “It took about two or three weeks altogether. The civilians stayed out of the city for another month or month and a half after that. We were still doing operations then, but it wasn’t an all out push. It was just cleaning up. It was loose ends. Weapons caches. Just basically getting this place ready for the civilians to come back in. We made sure people weren’t going into their homes while they were rigged to blow.”
Civilians were evacuated from the city before Al-Fajr began.
“When the civilians left,” I said, “did you help them leave orderly, or was it a mad scramble to get out of here?”
“They left in an orderly fashion,” he said. “Camps were set up outside the city for people who didn’t have family or relatives to go to and for people who couldn’t make the journey.”
A few civilians, though, did not make it out.
“There are people everywhere who want to ride out a crisis,” said India Company’s Captain Stewart Glenn. “Just like those people in New Orleans who stuck around for Hurricane Katrina. I’m going to ride it out, they said. So a few around here rode it out. There were, I think, six or so families that did that. We painted the word Family on the walls of their houses so they wouldn’t be confused with combatants.”
Family Fallujah.jpg
Marines painted “Family” on the walls of houses of the few civilians who remained in the city during Al-Fajr so they would not be confused with combatants.
“Did you screen people for weapons as they left,” I asked Corporal Koch, “or did you let out anybody who wanted out?”
“As far as I know they were screening everybody,” he said. “We didn’t have the ID system up and running like we do now. The old IDs were easily faked. But there were people screening them as they came out of the city, looking for high value targets and whatnot, making sure nobody was slipping through the cracks.”
“What was the most intense thing you experienced?” I said.
“Personally?” he said. “It would have to be the initial push. By training I am a mortar man. We have these 60mm mortars, and our section had to carry our gear. We had to carry our tubes. The system weighs about 117 pounds, and we split that out between three guys. And everyone carried rounds that weighed about eight pounds each, and we’d have to carry about eight of those. Plus our combat load. We would wake up at dawn, fire our guns, pack everything up, get on line with the elevens, and just keep pushing through everything. It sucked a lot of times. It seemed like every time you were ready to take a break, it’s like they knew, and that’s when all the fire fights started. It seemed like it never happened when you were fresh.”
Marine Collapsed Wall Fallujah.jpg
“Was there one fight in particular that was intense or memorable?” I said. “The kind of story you would tell your kids or your friends back home?”
“I don’t talk to my friends back home about it,” he said. “We pretty much only talk amongst ourselves.”
“Is it because they don’t want to hear about it,” I said, “or you don’t want to talk about it?”
“It’s because everybody glorifies it so much, I think,” he said softly and a little bit sadly. “Everybody thinks it’s cool. You know?”
“You mean American civilians glorify it?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Guys our age. You go home and you always get those stupid questions. Did you shoot anybody? Did you kill anybody? How many people? I just don’t personally deal with that. I had a great uncle who was in the Korean War. I talk to people like him about it. As far as regular people, I don’t. If they ask I just tell them it was nothing. That’s what I hear from everybody else, too. They feel the same way.”
“How do you feel about what happened here?” I said.
“I definitely think it was necessary,” he said. “I don’t have any regrets. I’m glad I did it, and I would do it again. It’s good to see the city the way it is and to go to the same neighborhoods. They’re so much cleaner now. These people are doing things on their own, they’re taking care of their own stuff. When I was here three years ago, I never would have imagined this place would ever be like it is now. It reminded me of Tijuana. When we got here it just seemed like everything you could think of that was bad, this city had it going on. Now they have regular families thriving in the city. There are people working neighborhood watch, working together. It has turned around a lot. I didn’t even want to come on this deployment, but now seeing the city the way it is, I’m glad I did. It’s like a closure on everything.”
Big House Fallujah.jpg
Many houses are damaged or riddled with bullet holes, but most are in okay condition today.
“How do you feel about the people who live here?” I said.
“My opinion of the people here has changed, too,” he said. “Originally, because of the shape the city was in, I didn’t have a whole lot of respect for the people. But now, after seeing how much these people have changed, and understanding that they were under a dictatorship…I didn’t really understand what a dictatorship was. These people are working hard. They have good family values. Their religious faith is incredible compared to how people are in the States. Even people who think they’re religious in the States, they’re nothing compared to the people here. They have city-wide prayers every day, you know? Honestly, I have a lot of respect for the people here.”
Man with Keffiyeh and Tire Fallujah.jpg
I hear criticism of Iraqis of some kind almost every day when I’m in Iraq. There is a lot to criticize. Iraq is a broken country. Its infrastructure and economy are shot, its political culture dysfunctional. In my experience, though, contempt for Iraqi culture specifically, and Arabs and Islam more generally, is far more prevalent in the American civilian population, even in liberal coastal cities, than it is among American soldiers and Marines who interact with Iraqis every day, forge sometimes intense personal bonds with Iraqis, eat Iraqi food, and speak at least a little Arabic. Stereotypes about racist and psychotic Marines, as well as fanatical and psychotic Iraqis, can’t survive a lengthy trip to Fallujah, at least not to the Fallujah of late 2007.
“How competent were the insurgents?” I said.
“They were pretty competent,” Corporal Koch said. “They’re smart…or I guess it would be more like crafty. They definitely have some experience. And they definitely have some street smarts to ’em. They adapt so quickly. They’re always coming up with new ways to do stuff, and new ways to fight. When we fight we have traditions almost. We always do things the same way. Even the Marine Corps is like that. Actually I think they’re helping us because they’re making us change. I think they’re a lot smarter than people give them credit for. They have to be, because they’re still here. They’re still fighting.”
“They’re still fighting elsewhere in Iraq, anyway,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, not so much here. The extremists in general have been getting away. We’re slowly catching up to them, but they’ve been putting up a fight for years now. They’re pretty smart individuals. Their biggest problem, luckily for us, is a lack of resources.”
“Who were these guys in 2004, exactly?” I said. Most of the Sunni Triangle has been largely pacified lately, but it was a genuine rogues gallery not long ago, bristling with terrorists and guerrilla armies that flew many flags. “Were they Al Qaeda, the 1920s Revolution Brigade, Baathists?” I said.
Bullet Hole Bus Fallujah.jpg
“I think a lot of them, honestly, were looking for work,” he said. “[Lieutenant] Colonel [Patrick] Malay — he was our battalion commander — he used to talk about the Friendlies, the Fence-sitters, and the Fuckos. The fence-sitters would sometimes play off us. I think we had a lot of those, too. It’s hard when you first get here if you’re not used to being around Middle Eastern people and you’re not used to the culture. They all stare at you, you know? Just because they’re not used to you. There’s was some confusion in general, people not used to each other’s cultures. But like I said, I think it was a mixture. There were serious guys, then some less serious guys and people who were pressured into it. We could usually tell the difference when we fought them. Some were really there to fight. Others, halfway through, would sometimes think about it and then take off. They’d run or just give up.”
“Did you get many who surrendered to you?” I said.
“Not so much,” he said. “But there were houses where we would come in, they’d put their guns down, and be like, okay, we don’t want to do this. So we would just detain them. There was a detention facility where they would have to be checked. It kind of sucks, it gives you kind of a weird feeling, because they were fighting, but they’re not necessarily bad people. People do weird stuff to feed their family. It goes back to the fence-sitter thing. That makes it hard.”
Some of the insurgents reportedly came from places as far from Iraq as Chechnya. They weren’t all Iraqis, and they weren’t even all Sunni Arabs. In Ramadi around 90 percent of captured insurgents are Iraqis, but around 90 percent of suicide bombers and Al Qaeda in Iraq leaders are from another country. Fallujah, though, is not the same place as Ramadi. It has been meaner and murkier for the duration of the conflict.
“Do you think most of these guys were from here, or from somewhere else?” I said.
“I don’t think they were from here,” he said. “I know how these people are and how their culture is. I honestly don’t think they would fight anywhere close to their families or anything that they care about, just on the chance that somebody would get hurt. Just like back in the States. If you wanted to fight, you wouldn’t start a war in your house. You would want to go somewhere else.”
I think he’s right that Iraqis don’t want to fight where they live. Fallujah has a hardened perimeter manned by the Iraqi Police. If you don’t have a Fallujah resident sticker on the windshield of your car, you are not allowed in. Car bombers and gun runners from the rest of Iraq are effectively banned from Fallujah. The level of violence isn’t quite zero, but it’s close.
“Do you think the insurgents were from elsewhere in Iraq,” I said, “or elsewhere in the Middle East?”
“I think it was both,” he said. “I don’t have a sense if there was more of one or the other. But there was definitely a mixture. You could tell the difference between people from difference places. There were little subtleties. They would dress differently. The way they look.”
One thing that really struck me while reading House to House: An Epic Memoir of War by Staff Sergeant David Bellavia was how the soldiers in his unit during Al-Fajr feared anything that moved that wasn’t American. Because the civilians had left, the empty city of Fallujah was like a set-piece battleground at the end of the world.
“What were your rules of engagement when you took the city?” I said.
“Pretty much the same as they are now,” he said.
“There weren’t many civilians around,” I said. “Didn’t that loosen up the rules of engagement at all?”
“It didn’t loosen up the rules of engagement,” he said. “But the guys that were in the city were there to fight. They weren’t operating in crowds. Today when somebody goes out on patrol to the marketplace, obviously any insurgents will have to hide and stay low. There wasn’t any of that before. There was an understanding: if they were there, they were there to fight. And if you’re not there to fight, then don’t stay. But the rules of engagement were the same. The difference is that they were more aggressive, so it was an easier decision for us.”
“What’s the most important thing about Fallujah that Americans should know that they don’t know?” I said.
“Most Americans think Fallujah is such a bad place,” he said. “They’ve been hearing about it from Day One. It’s a holy city. I don’t know how many people know that it’s a holy city. The extremists, since it is a holy city, were hiding behind it, were using it for the cause. Ramadi is another one that just has a horrible reputation. I haven’t been to Ramadi, but the last I heard it’s doing better than this city is.”
“It is a bit better,” I said. “I was there a few months ago. Not a lot better, but a little bit.”
“So I think the most important thing for people to know is that it’s a city full of normal people. It’s not like…I think people get the impression that it’s a city where people are walking down the street with AK-47s. Like a bad Rambo movie or something. That’s the impression people get, but it’s not like that at all.”
Girl in Overalls Fallujah.jpg
“I don’t think people really know what to expect from any of this,” he continued. “It’s like people say: you only get the bad news on TV. They don’t get to hear about how Fallujah is doing good now. I’m sure they’d hear about it if something bad happened. But these people are doing better, the schools are open, businesses are open, people are cleaning up their own city. They’re starting their own neighborhood watch. They have their own police force now, their own government. People don’t get to hear about that. I think that’s important for people to know. You shouldn’t focus so much on people who mess up. I mean, people have messed up. Bad stuff has happened. But you should focus on the percentage of people who are doing good as opposed to the percentage who are doing bad. There’s a lot of good going on over here. And there’s a lot of good people in this city.”
Sergeant Charles Smith also fought in Fallujah during Al-Fajr and has returned to the city for another tour.
“So, what was the fighting like?” I said.
“It was crazy,” he said. “We went in on November 8. It was my twenty first birthday. We went in through the northwest part of the city. We pushed east. For the first two weeks it was crazy. You didn’t know when you were going to get shot at. But you were going to get shot at. Every day it was something. You didn’t know from where. I got in six fire fights. It wasn’t that many, not like Kilo Company. They got in a lot more. And they took a lot more casualties than we did in India Company.”
“What was the most intense thing you experienced?” I said.
Sergeant Smith Fallujah.jpg
Sergeant Charles Smith
“December 11,” he said. “The day before, Third Platoon had gotten in a fire fight. Third Platoon had them pinned in. We pulled back, called in air and tanks on the building we thought they were in. The morning of December 11 we were going to continue clearing the northeast part of the city. My fire team was supposed to go first, but for whatever reason the second fire team went. They went to the front door, but they couldn’t kick it in. Then they went to the back door, which was open. As soon as they made entry…all the lights were off, so they turned on the Surefire [rifle-mounted flashlight] and it was an ambush. The team leader at the time suppressed so his team could get out. Me and another guy were on the roof to help suppress from the first building. The whole fire team came out, except one guy. So we had to go back in to get him out of the fight. He saved his fire team, but he didn’t make it out. It was a bad day.”
Crumpled House Fallujah.jpg
I asked Sergeant Smith some of the same questions I asked Corporal Koch.
“Who were the bad guys, exactly?” I said. No one in Fallujah ever mentioned the Baath Party or the 1920s Revolution Brigade when I asked that question. The answer was always either Al Qaeda, random unaffiliated disgruntled Iraqis, or both.
“Anybody who wanted to stay and fight,” he said. “We dropped leaflets on the city that said we’re coming in. If you want to stay, stay. But you’re going to be considered hostile. So they had their fair warning. We did see some civilians, but for the most part if they were in the city they were bad. We would raid houses, kick in a door, and there would be a family just sitting there. So we’d load them up and the company gunny would take them to where we took them, to wherever Battalion took them.”
“Who do you suppose these people were,” I said, “the ones who didn’t want to leave? Did they have no way out? Were they just stubborn?”
“I’d say they were stubborn,” he said.
“Did you suspect they were up to no good?” I said.
“They had to be up to no good,” he said. “I mean, they had their fair warning to get out of the city. But, I mean, it’s not like we just shot at everybody. We always had to have a positive ID. The extremists, the people who thought they could actually take on however many battalions of Marines that were here, it was just suicide for them. They had to know that we were going to kill them.
“Were they good fighters?” I said.
“They’re not good fighters,” he said, “but they got a bunch of us. They knew we were clearing every building. And they’d learn from us. Whenever we went to a position we always filled sandbags and stuff like that.”
Sandbags Fallujah.jpg
“And they would do the same thing,” he continued. “They knew that if we couldn’t come through the front door, we’d go through the back door. So they would barricade one door and leave one open. And they’d put a bunker and a machine gun down that main hallway. They would sit in the back corner of a room and soon as you kicked open the door they would just keep firing. So maybe they weren’t very good fighters, but they were quick to adapt and were actually pretty smart.”
“I’ve read that some of these guys injected themselves with drugs,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, “we found syringes, different types of drugs. The corpsman tried to explain to me what they were at the time, but I didn’t really pay attention to him. They found a lot of medical stuff like that, but for the most part they were just smart. They basically knew what we were going to do every time. We would clear the house, so all they had to do was wait.”
“Do you talk about this stuff with your friends and family?” I said. I was curious if he, like Corporal Koch, kept the war all bottled up inside to himself.
“If they ask, I’ll tell them,” he said. “It doesn’t really bother me. The more people understand what’s really going on over here, the more support they’ll give us.”
“What do you think of the media coverage?” I said. “I don’t mean generally, I mean specifically about Fallujah. Or did you even see any of it?”
“We had Fox News,” he said. “They were with India Company. We had Max Becherer from Time magazine. He went everywhere with us. He actually saved my life. He pulled me up over a building. I was starting to fall and he grabbed me and pulled me over. During that time the coverage was actually pretty accurate.”
Distressed Girl Fallujah.jpg
Fallujah is only beginning to recover from violent trauma. This girl became extremely distressed when she saw Marines walking toward her. I tried to smile and wave to put her at ease, but she refused to look at any of us.
“What’s the most important thing Americans don’t know about Fallujah that they should know?” I said.
“Now or then?” he said.
“Either,” I said. “Both.”
“I think for the most part, then, the city was bad,” he said. “We did what we had to do to give the city back to the people. And now the people of Fallujah just want their lives back. They’re tired of fighting. They’ve been fighting for almost five years now. They want stability. They want to be secure and not worry about Al Qaeda, not worry about coming up on a military convoy too fast and getting shot at. They don’t want to be stopped in the city. They want to be left alone and just live their lives like we do back in the United States.”
Boy With Broom Fallujah.jpg
“Did you get the sense that people didn’t want that back then,” I said, “or that most of them did and that this place was just taken over?”
“It was just taken over,” he said. “It was that bad. There were insurgents everywhere.”
“Did the average person who lived here support you guys, the insurgents, or were they caught in the middle and didn’t know which way to jump?” I said.
“They were fence-sitters, as Colonel Malay would say,” he said. “They may not have really trusted Americans, but they knew if they were with the insurgents we were going to come after them and kill them. So they basically just sat in the middle.”
“What changed here?” I said. “Why did it flip?”
“Fallujah is getting a good city government,” he said. “The police force is really good now. They do their own stakeouts, their own intel. They’re really good. The Iraqi Police caught a high value target not too long ago, back in October I believe. They’re always finding IEDs or weapons caches.”
“Old IEDs or new ones?” I said.
“Both,” he said. “They found a 200-pound Russian warhead the other day. On the north side of the city, in the northwest corner. It was half exposed. I’m not sure how it was exposed. There is some work being done up there, so I don’t know if whoever is working there exposed it or what. I just know that they found it and came to us. So we called the EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] team and they came out and disposed of it.”
“How does it feel to be back?” I said. “Are you surprised by what it’s like now?”
“Oh, definitely,” he said. “From what I understand, after 3/5 left the first time it became very bad. There were snipers all the time, IEDs all the time. And then — I’m not sure which unit — they came in and the city pretty much changed overnight. The attacks stopped. People are happy to see us out here. From hearing that when we were here it was good, then hearing that it went bad again, and now hardly any attacks on us, it’s just amazing.”
“Was it worth it, do you think?” I said.
“Yes,” he said without hesitation.
“Why?” I said.
“We got rid of an insurgency and fought the bad guys,” he said. “That’s why people join the Marine Corps, to go and fight.”
Shot Up Marine Station Fallujah.jpg
Marines live and work in the back of this shot up house
I laughed. Marines like to say this sort of thing. They seem slightly more disappointed than Army soldiers when there’s nobody to shoot at. Many I’ve spoken to want to redeploy to Afghanistan where they can still “get some.” At the same time, it seems they’re happy to see that the war in Fallujah has been practically won.
“So yeah,” he continued. “It was worth it. We got rid of a tyrant. It sounds bad, but I’d rather fight insurgents over here than have more attacks in the U.S. A lot of people, I think, don’t understand that if we weren’t over here — maybe not in Iraq, but in the Middle East — I think more attacks would be going on in the United States. Why would they go and fly all the way to the United States when they can just fight us over here? That’s just my personal view on it.”
“What do you think of the people who live here?” I said.
Marine and Little Girls Fallujah.jpg
“I think they’re normal everyday people who are just trying to get their lives back,” he said. “They’re tired of being threatened by Al Qaeda. They’re tired of having war in their country. They just want to be left alone. They don’t necessarily want to go back to the way things were when Saddam was here. They just want a normal life.”
“We’re not here to fight for Iraqis,” Lieutenant Mike Barefoot said to me later. “But we start to feel like we are after a while. During training a lot of Marines said they hated Iraqis. I don’t hear that anymore.”
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