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Falluja- Iraq's Cockpit Of Violence

By Peter Beaumont

The Observer
11 January, 2004

In the dining hall at Camp Volturno on the outskirts of Falluja, the newcomers to Taskforce 1 Panther of the US 82nd Airborne Division sit quietly as they listen to their welcome brief. They are big men, barrel-chested from pushing weights, heads shaved to stubble or tiny Tintin fins.

Lieutenant-Colonel Brian Drinkwine, the battalion commander, begins the briefing that will colour these young soldiers' perceptions of the town two miles beyond their compound's walls. The senior non-commissioned officers will tell these boys Falluja is the most 'dangerous place on earth'.

'Falluja is the centrepoint of the war,' says Drinkwine, a solid man in his late thirties. 'You got to be steely-eyed out there,' he said. 'There are a good people down there and in the midst of them are a handful of evildoers.

'We have told the local leaders we know that there are evildoers. But we are not here to spray up the town. We say: "You shoot an RPG, you can expect some steely-eyed killers who will kill or capture you".'

Then the new boys see Falluja for the first time, projected on the mess hall screen, an aerial map of a small, ugly city nestling in a bend of the Euphrates, and bisected neatly by the line of Highway 10, which the soldiers call the 'highway of death'.

It is this road that defines the American war in Falluja, and two locations in particular. The first is just to the east, where Highway 10 loops in a large four-spiralled interchange that the 82nd call the 'Cloverleaf'.

The second is on the other side of the city, where Highway 10 crosses the Euphrates by what Iraqis call the 'new' bridge, but what Taskforce 1 Panther has dubbed 'George Washington Bridge' and the 'triangle of death'.

At these two locations the Iraqi resistance has waged most fiercely its war against the United States with ambushes and improvised landmines.

Drinkwine leaves it to his battalion intelligence officer, Captain Gary Love, to fill in the picture. Love brings up a second map in which the city is sectored into areas of colour. Predominant is red. 'The red,' says Captain Love, 'is high threat. That is two-thirds of the city. I want you to notice that there is no green,' he says. 'There are no areas where the threat is low.'

And in the last 10 days the resistance has produced a series of spectacular attacks, bringing down two helicopters near the city in two separate incidents, killing nine US personnel inside, and also murdering two French contractors working for the Coalition Provisional Authority.

The members of Taskforce 1 Panther need little reminding of the dangers as they sit in a dining hall dedicated to the memory of Staff Sergeant Paul Johnson, killed just 500 metres from the camp's gate in an attack that wounded seven other members of Alpha Company.

A father of one from Calumet, Michigan, Johnson, 29, was driving his Humvee in the 'Cloverleaf' just after noon on 20 October.

The squad leader probably did not notice the 50-gallon oil drum by the roadside. It was packed with explosives and rigged with a remote control device. When it detonated next to his vehicle, the paratrooper died instantly.

But if the attack on Johnson's squad was traumatising for the men of Camp Volturno, it was eclipsed, a fortnight later, by an event that turned Falluja, for the Americans, into the most infamous place in Iraq: the shooting down of a Chinook packed with US soldiers going on leave.

At 9am on 2 November two of the vast twin-bladed helicopters took off from Habbaniya, a few miles up the road from Falluja, on what should have been a routine flight to Baghdad airport, barely 40 miles away.

It was a short hop for the two crews that would take them over the strange and ugly hinterland of the Sunni triangle: a place of dusty fields, dykes and fetid ponds.

As the helicopters flew above a stand of date palms near the village of Buissa, Iraqi fighters hidden in the trees fired two shoulder-launched Strella anti-aircraft missiles which locked on to the heat of one of the engines, sending the aircraft crashing to the ground. It was Drinkwine's men who later collected the bodies.

Such violence did not arise from a vacuum. The violence in Falluja - the city which gave birth to Iraq's resistance - exploded against the background of a series of disastrous shootings of civilians by soldiers from 82nd Airborne inside the city. These incidents stoked popular sentiment in favour of the fledgling guerrilla movement at a time when it was in most need of support.

The al-Qaid Primary School sits a little south of Highway 10, set back behind a 7ft-high wall. It is a large building by Falluja standards, and easily defendable.

Crucially it afforded the soldiers of Charlie Company of the 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne, who occupied it in mid-April, sweeping views across that section of the city.

When the 82nd arrived it was into a city that had held together while Iraq was disintegrating in an orgy of looting. By the time that US troops entered Falluja on 23 April, tribal and religious leaders had taken control, and resented their presence. The people of Falluja found the Americans aggressive, arrogant and alien, a problem exacerbated by a widely disseminated rumour that they could see through women's clothing with their night vision goggles.

By 28 April - Saddam Hussein's birthday - those tensions had fatally collided in an event that has become Iraq's equivalent to Northern Ireland's Bloody Sunday.

Charlie Company of the 2nd Brigade in the school was on high alert. There had already been gunfire in the town. At 10pm a demonstration of several hundred people arrived outside the school to protest about the presence of the troops within its walls.

As the crowd approached, soldiers of the 82nd, armed with machine guns and carbines, were deployed on the roof and at windows.

What happened next is still in dispute. According to Human Rights Watch, which published the most definitive account of the slaughter that would follow, none of the demonstrators had a weapon.

But the American soldiers, interviewed by the charity, claim that as the crowd approached they could hear firing becoming louder, and noticed several gunmen positioned on the roofs of the houses opposite.

Though the US soldiers believed they came under 'effective' fire, Human Rights Watch believes they may have mistaken the sound of windows being broken by thrown rocks for gunfire hitting their positions.

The soldiers fired with indiscriminate force that left 16 Iraqis dead and dozens more injured - and the US killings in Falluja go on. I met the survivors from two other multiple shootings of civilians by the 82nd in the city, including eight members of Iraq's Police Service killed by Drinkwine's men pursuing suspected car-jackers.

But if the trigger-happy reputation of the 82nd has pushed many from what Drinkwine concedes was a 'sullen resentment' towards the invasion to active support of the resistance, it is still not quite enough to explain what is happening here.

While in the words of one Baghdadi 'Falluja is a bad-ass town', it is also a town with strict social codes, and a town whose people believe they are engaged in a mission sanctified by God. It is explained by a 'cell leader' in Falluja's resistance - a bearded and prosperous-looking man in his mid-fifties, who has lost five cousins in the 'fight'. 'We are resisters by nature,' he tells me. 'America has invaded us and insulted us and so it is legitimate for us to fight. It is our honour and our duty and we know that it will be a long fight.'

Asked how the resistance works, he explains: 'There is a joint leadership but we work as individual groups. It is better that the attacks are organised randomly, although we are capable of co-ordinating when we need to.'

He describes how foreign volunteers coming to fight the Americans in Iraq are vetted, and how only those prepared to fight on the terms of the resistance in the city are welcomed.

'The big suicide bombing operations,' he says, 'are nothing to do with us. We are only against the American forces.' Then he made an extraordinary confession: 'Last week I was driving in my car with my smallest child when a soldier came up and started playing with him. I saw a tear in his eye. I thought: "He does not have a choice about being here". And I wished him no evil. I swear to God,' he tells me, 'it hurts me to see an American bleed. I admire them, but in their own country.'

My translator later explains the importance of the al-Buessa tribe in Falluja; its harsh, simple notions of honour, a hallmark of Al Anbar province. While Falluja's resistance is coloured by the leadership of the many ex-Baathists and regime members in the town, it is also marked by the fiercely proud credo of its tribes - in particular the al-Buessa, which claims responsibility for the downing of the Chinook.

It is the al-Buessa too, Drinkwine says, who were behind an attack by rocket-propelled grenade on the mayor's office that injured two of his men in the 82nd. And it is the al-Buessa area by the bridge which is one of the most dangerous areas of Falluja for homemade bombs.

'The al-Buessa tribe are the biggest pain in the butt and the biggest problem,' says Captain Love. 'When we first came to Falluja, the al-Buessa leader in the area by the bridge, Sheikh Ghazi [Sami al-Abed], was all over the previous guys here, giving barbecues and introducing us to "this great guy". Our reaction was: "Whoa. Who is this man and what does he want"?'

The answer, believes Love, reveals a snapshot not just of Falluja, but of Iraq's resistance; how local political, tribal and financial struggles are finding their expression in the fight against the Coalition in a country that is increasingly hostile to the occupation.

The map drawn by Love of Falluja's fighters describes a battle for supremacy within the al-Buessa tribe between Sheikh Ghazi Sami al-Abed, who has the money but no power, and his cousin Saradran Barakat, who has the power but no money.

It has forced the two rivals into an unhappy partnership to protect their positions within the tribe with Ghazi - according to the 82nd - supplying the money, either voluntarily or under pressure, to fund the resistance, and the now arrested Barakat the muscle and the know-how. The full picture, Love believes, is completed by the presence in the city of members of the Muslim and Islamic Brotherhoods, Ansar al-Islam and Wahhabi extremists, the latter helping to channel money from Saudi Arabia's radicals.

If the resistance is driven by often barely visible dynamics, the 82nd's sometimes messy presence in and around the city has its own hidden narrative. Critics of the division, including soldiers attached to it, describe them as 'ruffians who get the job done'.

Sterner critics claim that the 82nd, a body of troops designed for rapid shock assaults and not for peacekeeping, are the 'wrong soldiers, in the wrong city at the wrong time'.

But it is the soldiers themselves who privately express a deeper problem - of increasingly plummeting morale across the US forces here.

Deployed here straight from serving in Afghanistan, some have barely seen friends and families in two years, and while none will say that they should not be there, there is an edgy bitterness reflected in the sometimes racist graffiti around Volturno.

When I meet Sheikh Ghazi in his Falluja office, it is to find it has been vandalised during a raid by men under Drinkwine's command, who have carved 'Fuck You' into his office door, and slashed and smashed sofas, pictures and windows.

Ghazi denies involvement with the resistance, and when I ask him what advice he gives to young men wishing to fight, he tells me that he is largely ignored by them. Love claims that Ghazi's interest is not simply political. The intelligence cell in the 82nd has noticed how he has been buying up blocks of land amid the chaos.

Ghazi is still at large because Drinkwine and his senior officers believe that the ambitious and equivocal businessman can be 'leveraged' into assisting US forces to pacify the city.

'What we are seeing in this city,' says Drinkwine, 'is a power struggle among the sheikhs who had little effective power under Saddam's regime. There is also a clear influence in the violence from some of the clerics. You do notice that the closer that you get to the bridge the more difficult it becomes for us. It's like the Shankill Road for us down there. But even though these are cowards we are dealing with, who fire from behind good people, I now believe this is an enemy that has a face. We are beginning to understand his thought processes.'

A few days later, sitting in the back of an open Humvee pick-up with soldiers from the brigade's Alpha Company at 3am on a bitterly cold night, I notice how the paratroopers' vehicles are nerve-rackingly exposed: their armour, in most cases, is improvised by the soldiers. Some have placed steel plates against the sides, while others have constructed sandwiches of plywood and sandbags. A lucky few have Kevlar blankets.

In the darkness, Falluja is a different city. Through the soldiers' night-vision goggles it is a green oceanscape of flattened perspectives where each individual streetlight appears as a startling blizzard. In the dark - and without any goggles - all I can see is narrow streets and looming buildings and the first shadowy bunches of paratroops who are dismounting from their vehicles ahead of me.

As locks are scythed through, and two CIA officials in Arab headscarves root through a mechanic's workshop for bomb-making equipment, a message comes from Charlie Company, which is raiding the suspect's home, that it has come under attack from some rocket-propelled grenades.

In an instant the atmosphere thickens into something more sickly and tense: the thought that the intelligence is not only wrong, but may be a set-up. There is nothing to do but wait for the order to pull out.

It is a pointless and frightening few minutes - standing in the middle of an alien landscape, waiting for an unseen enemy to attack. It is the very nature of Iraq's war.