Amelie Herenstein, AFP
Last updated: 15 December, 2011

Iraq’s Fallujah glad to see back of US army

Battered, humiliated and temporarily cut off from the rest of Iraq, the people of Fallujah have paid a heavy price for two massive battles in 2004 between US forces and Sunni insurgents.

Now they can’t wait for the “occupiers” to leave.

Despite parts of the city having been rebuilt, Fallujah remains deeply scarred by US military offensives in April and November 2004, two of the bloodiest campaigns of the war that turned it into a household name.

“It is true that we suffered many losses, but we taught them a lesson they will never forget,” said a man who said he took part in the fighting but declined to give his name.

“They will tell their grandchildren of the great fighters of Fallujah.”

The city of about half a million people 60 kilometres (40 miles) west of Baghdad was home to some of the earliest anti-US protests in the aftermath of the March 2003 invasion.

Back in May 2003, Fallujah residents were content to just throw their shoes at US soldiers.

But in March 2004, four American employees of the US private security firm Blackwater, since renamed Xe and now called Academi, were brutally killed in the city.

Images of their bodies, mutilated and set alight before being left hanging from a bridge over the Euphrates river, were seen the world over, and it would not be long before the US responded.

The April offensive aimed to quell the burgeoning Sunni insurgency but was a failure — Fallujah became a fiefdom of Al-Qaeda and its allies, who essentially controlled the city.

The second campaign was launched just two months before legislative elections, in January 2005. Some 2,000 civilians and 140 Americans died, in a battle considered one of the fiercest for the United States since the Vietnam war.

Seven years later, remnants of the devastation are still clearly visible.

A multi-storey building, having collapsed in on itself, lies close to the bridge where the Blackwater employees were left hanging.

Behind it is a network of muddy lanes which form a dilapidated market, with the walls surrounding it bearing bullet holes. In that market, or souk, is a modest workshop belonging to Mohammed Weida, a tailor.

“The Americans destroyed Fallujah — their presence was a curse” for the city, the 53-year-old said, standing beneath a large hole in the ceiling. “We used to live well, but because of them, our situation now is miserable.”

Nearby, a schoolteacher wandering through the market insisted Fallujah’s residents would “never forgive (the Americans) for the harm they caused.”

“It will be a day of joy for Iraqis when the last Americans leave Iraq,” said Khalid Zidane Khalaf, 61.

On Wednesday, hundreds of people in Fallujah marked the impending departure of American forces from Iraq by burning US flags and shouting slogans in support of the “resistance.”

Dubbed the first annual “festival to celebrate the role of the resistance,” residents held up banners and placards inscribed with phrases like, “Now we are free” and “Fallujah is the flame of the resistance.”

City council chief Hamid Ahmed al-Hashim played up the changes in Fallujah since 2004, thanks to reconstruction efforts by the United States, the Iraqi government and various international organisations.

“No Iraqi city suffered as much as Fallujah during the occupation, and no battle in Iraq can compare to what happened in Fallujah,” he said.

“(But) the bridges, the biggest hospital in Iraq, the water and sewage systems have all been fixed. You can see the situation now, it’s very different from what it was like after the second battle.”

Despite the rebuilding work, financial aid from the Americans has done little to dampen the resentment felt in the city.

Apart from the material damage to the city in the 2004 battles, the US military stands accused of harming the long-term health of local residents through the use of white phosphorous.

They also complain of American forces having closed off Fallujah for several years, making it impossible for non-residents to visit, and ravaging its economy. The city has since been re-opened.

The actions of the US military convince Hamid Abid Ali, a history teacher in the city, that Washington is bent on revenge for the 2004 showdown and will “never allow Fallujah to live in peace.”

“The American leaders should be brought before international courts and punished for the crimes they committed in Iraq,” the 42-year-old thundered.

Other residents of the city in predominantly Sunni Arab western Iraq believe the US withdrawal will simply leave them at the mercy of country’s Shiite-led Baghdad government and its backers in neighbouring Iran.

“The Americans will leave us to another occupation — that of Iran,” said Hashim, the city council chief. “All that will change is the occupier.”