Page 1 of 2 The new Fallujah up close and ugly By Dahr Jamail
FALLUJAH - Driving through Fallujah, once the most rebellious Sunni city in
Iraq, I saw little evidence of any kind of reconstruction underway. At least
70% of that city's structures were destroyed during massive US military
assaults in April, and again in November 2004, and more than four years later,
in the "new Iraq", the city continues to languish.
The shells of buildings pulverized by US bombs, artillery or mortar fire back
then still line Fallujah's main street, or rather, what's left of it. As one of
the few visible signs of reconstruction in the city, that street - largely
destroyed during the November 2004 siege - is slowly being torn up to be
Unemployment is rampant, the infrastructure remains largely in
ruins, and tens of thousands of residents who fled in 2004 are still refugees.
How could it be otherwise, given the amount of effort that went into its
destruction and not, subsequently, into rebuilding it? It's a place where a
resident must still carry around a US-issued personal biometric ID card, which
must also be shown any time you enter or exit the city if you are local. Such a
card can only be obtained after US military personnel have scanned your retinas
and taken your fingerprints.
The trauma from the 2004 attacks remains visible everywhere. Given the
countless still-bullet-pocked walls of restaurants, stores and homes, it is
impossible to view the city from any vantage point, or look in any direction,
without observing signs of those sieges.
Everything in Fallujah, and everyone there, has been touched to the core by the
experience, but not everyone is experiencing the aftermath of the city's
devastation in the same way. In fact, for much of my "tour" of Fallujah, I was
inside a heavily armored, custom-built, $420,000 BMW with all the accessories
needed in 21st century Iraq, including a liquor compartment and bulletproof
One of the last times I had been driven through Fallujah - in April 2004 - I
was with a small group of journalists and activists. We had made our way into
the city, then under siege, on a rickety bus carrying humanitarian aid
supplies. After watching in horror as US F-16s dropped bombs inside Fallujah
while we wound our way toward it through rural farmlands, we arrived to find
its streets completely empty, save for mujahideen checkpoints.
To say that my newest mode of transportation was an upgrade that left me a bit
disoriented would be (mildly put) an understatement. The BMW belonged to Sheik
Aifan Sadun, head of the Awakening Council of Fallujah. Thanks to the Awakening
movement that began forming in 2006 in al-Anbar province, then the hotbed of
the Sunni insurgency - into which American occupation forces quickly poured
significant amounts of money, arms and other kinds of support - violence across
most of that province is now at an all-time low. This is strikingly evident in
Fallujah, once known as the city of resistance, since the fiercest fighting of
the American occupation years took place there.
Today, 34-year-old Sheik Aifan may be the richest man in town, thanks to his
alliance of self-interest with the US occupation forces. Aifan's good fortune
was this: he was the right sheik in the right place at the right time when the
Americans, desperate over their failures in Iraq, decided to throw their
support behind the reconstitution of a tribal elite in the province where the
Sunni insurgency raged with particular fierceness from 2004-2006.
In the 'construction business'
Don't misunderstand. This wasn't a careful, strategically laid, made-in-the-USA
plan. It was a seat-of-the-pants, spur-of-the-moment quick fix. After all, by
the time US planners decided to throw their weight behind the Awakening
Movement, it was already something of a done deal.
In late 2006, roughly speaking, months before George W Bush's "surge" strategy
sent 30,000 more American troops into Baghdad and surrounding areas, the US
began making downpayments on the cooperation of local al-Anbar tribal sheiks
and started funding and arming the Sunni militias they were then organizing. As
a result, the number of insurgent attacks quickly began to drop, and so the
Americans widened the program to other provinces. It grew to include nearly
100,000 Sunni fighters, most of whom were paid $300 a month - a sizeable income
in a devastated city like Fallujah with sky-high unemployment rates.
The program was soon hailed as a success, and the groups were dubbed anything
from The Awakening, to Sons of Iraq (al-Sahwa), or as the US military preferred
for a time, Concerned Local Citizens. Whatever the name, most of their members
were former resistance fighters; many were also former members of Saddam
Hussein's Ba'ath Party; and significant numbers were - and, of course, remain -
There was an even deeper history to the path the Americans finally chose to
tame the insurgency and the homegrown al-Qaeda-in-Iraq (AQI) groups that had
spun off from it. In an interview with David Enders and Richard Rowley,
colleagues of mine, in the summer of 2007, Sheikh Aifan laid this out quite
clearly: "Saddam Hussein supported some tribes and some sheiks. Some of those
sheiks, he used their power in their areas. The first support came by money. He
supported them by big projects, by money, and he made them very rich. So you
see, they can deal with anyone in Iraq with money. The Americans, they made the
same plan with all the sheiks."
The main goal of the Americans was never the reconstruction of devastated
al-Anbar province. That was just the label given to a project whose objective -
from the US point of view - was to save American lives and to tamp down
violence in Iraq before the US presidential election of 2008.
Today, leading sheiks like Aifan will tell you that they are in "the
construction business". That's a polite phrase for what they're doing, and the
rubric under which a lot of the payouts take place (however modest actual
reconstruction work might be). Think of it this way: every dealer needs a front
man. The US bought the sheiks off and it was to their immediate advantage to be
bought off. They regained a kind of power that had been seeping away, while all
the money and arms allowed them to put real muscle into recruiting people in
the tribes they controlled and into building the Awakening Movement.
The reasons - and they are indeed plural - why the tribal leaders were so
willing to collaborate with the occupiers of their country are, at least in
retrospect, relatively clear. Those in al-Anbar who had once supported, and had
been supported by, Saddam, and then had initially supported the resistance
became far keener to work with occupation forces as they saw their power eroded
AQI proved a threat to the sheiks, many of whom had initially worked directly
with it, when it began to try to embed its own fierce, extremist Sunni ideology
in the region - and perhaps even more significantly, when it began to infringe
on the cross-border smuggling trade that had kept many tribal sheiks rich. As
AQI grew larger and threatened their financial and power bases, they had little
choice but to throw in their lot with the Americans.
As a result, these men obtained backing for their private militias, renamed
Awakening groups, and in addition, signed "construction" contracts with the
Americans who put millions of dollars in their pockets, even if not always into
actual construction sites. As early as April 2006, the Rand Corporation
released a report, "The Anbar Awakening", identifying America's potential new
allies as a group of sheiks who used to control smuggling rings and organized
crime in the area.
One striking example was Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, who founded the first
Awakening groups in al-Anbar and later led the entire movement until he was
assassinated in 2007, shortly after he met with president George W Bush. It was
well known in the region that Abu Risha was primarily a smuggler defending his
business operations by joining the Americans.
Not surprisingly, given the lucrative nature of the cooperative relationship
that developed, whenever an Awakening group sheik is assassinated, another is
always there to take his place. Abu Risha was, in fact, promptly replaced as
"president" of the Anbar Awakening by his brother Sheik Ahmad Abu Risha, also
now in the "construction business".
Dreaming of the new Dubai
When Bush visited Iraq in September 2007, my host on my tour of Fallujah, Sheik
Aifan, was delighted to meet him. Bush, he claimed, was "very smart and a
brother". During the summer of 2008, he would meet Barack Obama as well. When
asked what he thought of Obama, he told Richard Rowley, "US foreign policy
tends not to change with a new president." A photo of him with Iraqi Prime
Minister Nuri al-Maliki is proudly displayed, among many others, at his home in
To fully understand why tribal leaders like Aifan began working so closely with
American forces, you also have to take into account the waves of staggering
sectarian violence that were sweeping across Iraq in 2006. As Sunni suicide and
car bombings slaughtered Shi'ites, so, too, Shi'ite militias and death squads
were murdering Sunnis by the score on a daily basis.
Before the US invasion in 2003, Sunnis had been nearly a majority in Baghdad,
the Iraqi capital. By 2006, they were a rapidly shrinking minority, largely
driven out of the many mixed Sunni-Shi'ite neighborhoods that dotted the city
and some purely