There’s a truism long held in the Arab world: when the bad guys proclaim victory, they’re probably telling the truth. When the good guys proclaim victory, there’s usually just a little bit more fighting to be done before the promise is fulfilled; meaning another few days’ fighting, another week, another month… So when the Iraqi commander tells the people of Iraq that Fallujah has been “liberated” – for the fourth time in a decade, by my count – it’s time to use the critical faculties that politicians and armies so often lack.
Fallujah, you may remember, was the “city of mosques” whose Sunni people liberated themselves from Saddam’s rule a few days before their American liberators turned up in 2003 to tell the world they had themselves freed Fallujah from the evil Saddam. Then the city decided it didn’t want the American version of liberation and its resistance forces began attacking US troops who found themselves fighting – you guessed it – “terrorists” in Fallujah.
In two street protests in 2003, the American 82nd Airborne managed to kill 19 Iraqi civilians. They claimed – like the British 1st Parachute Regiment in Derry in 1972 – that they had been fired on by the protestors, but human rights groups said they could find no evidence of this. Nor could journalists who visited the scene. Come early 2004, and four armed American mercenaries in Fallujah, betrayed by a local Fallujah cop, were hauled from their vehicles and murdered. The Americans decided that the city should be ‘liberated’ again – and the Marines, in the preposterously named ‘Operation Vigilant Resolve’, laid siege to the city in March. They then handed it over to local Iraqi army troops formally loyal to Saddam – who promptly handed it back to the resistance (or ‘terrorists’). In November, therefore, it was time for the even more ridiculously named ‘Operation Phantom Fury’ in which hundreds of ‘terrorists’ were supposedly killed, along with dozens of US Marines.
The Americans denied using white phosphorous in the battle – then admitted they had indeed used phosphorous. And when Iraqi mothers in the city subsequently suffered a small a plague of stillborn and grossly deformed babies, their families blamed this on the use of American phosphorous shells. But in 2004, the Americans claimed they had discovered evidence of torture chambers in Fallujah and freed at least two hostages, one of them the chauffeur of a French journalist. There was no reason for surprise.
Fallujah had become “resistance city” for the army of rebels – Saddam veterans, foreign fighters and a growing al-Qaeda force in Iraq – over many months. In early 2004, I bought a series of videotapes on sale outside one of Fallujah’s largest mosques; they showed the beheading of Russian troops in Chechenya by bearded Islamists, each soldier led into a bare room where his throat was cut open in camera close-ups. They were training tapes; the Isis-to-be rebels of Fallujah were being taught the skills of a butcher — how to decapitate prisoners.
The lessons were put to swift use. The mortuaries of Baghdad filled each morning with headless corpses – one arrived with a dog’s head sewn onto the torso – and Fallujah became a no-go city. Fallujah was not a beheading centre, but it was an untamable city. In 2012, I visited the families of the malformed but still living children born after “Phantom Fury” – all bravely saying that they would care for their sons and daughters until they died because they were a gift from God – but my journeys around the city were guarded by black-uniformed Iraqi cops. One of their colleagues had just been murdered in an al-Qaeda ambush; al-Qaeda used another policeman’s radio to claim responsibility for the killing.
So when Isis overran Mosul three years later, Tikrit, Fallujah and the neighbouring city of Ramadi were bound to return to Sunni rebel rule, although many of the armed groups were tribesmen rather than Isis members. Tikrit was recaptured last year by a deeply pessimistic (and wounded) Iraqi Shiite lieutenant general called Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi who feared that Shiite militias had murdered several prisoners and complained that his country would be divided if his men were not better trained and armed.
A month ago, the Shia Iraqi government, supported by both the US and Iran as well as local Shia militias from southern Iraq, announced an even more ill-informed ‘Operation Breaking Terror’ and laid siege to Fallujah all over again, sending thousands of civilians fleeing for their lives and taking away for ‘interrogation’ at least 60 Sunni civilians, who are now suspected of being murdered by Shia militias. As usual when Fallujah is being ‘liberated’ US air strikes were called in to smash many ‘terrorist’ buildings to rubble. A week ago, the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, claimed that Fallujah had been ‘liberated’ after city hall, a brown concrete block at the very entrance to Fallujah, had been captured. Then the shooting went on.
Until a few hours ago when the very same Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi of Tikrit fame announced that his men had “fully [sic] liberated” Fallujah. No much of the city left, unfortunately – it’s been rebuilt twice already – but then yet further shooting was heard. What was that truism again? When the good guys proclaim victory…