Vet­er­ans watch losses of hard-fought gains Fal­lu­jah, now in al Qaeda con­trol, saw U.S. sac­ri­fice

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

Robert Reynolds chokes up when asked to re­call what it was like to be among U.S. forces who routed al Qaeda-linked fight­ers from the western Iraqi city of Fal­lu­jah a decade ago.

“We lost hun­dreds of men, so many men, and so many more men were in­jured,” said the for­mer Ma­rine, who re­ceived a Pur­ple Heart for the bul­let he took in the arm dur­ing the com­bat.

Like other Amer­i­cans who put their lives on the line in one of the most in­tense U.S. com­bat op­er­a­tions in decades, Mr. Reynolds, 36, finds it hard to come to grips with news this week that Fal­lu­jah had fallen back into the hands of al Qaeda — just two years af­ter U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq.

“In my unit, we lost 50-some­thing guys, and some that I was very close with,” he said Tues­day. “It sucks to think they went over there to give th­ese peo­ple a sec­ond chance and gave their life for a coun­try they love so much, and now what we’ve done is null and void be­cause [the ex­trem­ists] were let back in there, be­cause Iraqi Na­tional Guard guys or po­lice couldn’t hold it, couldn’t do their jobs.”

Iraqi mil­i­tary forces re­port­edly killed 25 mil­i­tants in airstrikes Tues­day in an on­go­ing ef­fort to dis­lodge al Qaeda-linked ex­trem­ists from key cities in An­bar prov­ince. Al Qaeda mil­i­tants have claimed con­trol of Ra­madi and Fal­lu­jah for more than a week.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has an­nounced that it will in­crease and ac­cel­er­ate de­liv­ery of weapons to the Shi­ite-led gov­ern­ment of Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki as he faces the big­gest cri­sis of his ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Al Qaeda’s gains in An­bar have fu­eled a po­lit­i­cal fight in Wash­ing­ton over whether the U.S. should be gear­ing up for a re-en­gage­ment in Iraq or do­ing more to counter the ter­ror­ist net­work’s fight­ers, who ap­pear to be mov­ing freely be­tween Iraq’s western prov­inces and the civil war in neigh­bor­ing Syria.

Sev­eral Repub­li­can law­mak­ers have ar­gued that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion moved too hastily in pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq and has not done enough to help the U.S.trained Iraqi mil­i­tary main­tain se­cu­rity in the na­tion.

For Pres­i­dent Obama, the sit­u­a­tion has pre­sented a dif­fi­cult chal­lenge — par­tic­u­larly be­cause he ran for of­fice six years ago on a prom­ise of end­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary’s ex­pen­sive and lengthy oc­cu­pa­tion of Iraq.

With resur­gent vi­o­lence, the ad­min­is­tra­tion has strug­gled to de­vise a pol­icy that will do any­thing but ex­ac­er­bate po­lit­i­cal and sec­tar­ian ten­sion in Iraq, where the prospect of a new civil war pit­ting the Shi­ite­dom­i­nated gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad against the na­tion’s Sun­nis has seemed all the more likely to un­fold this week.

Hu­man rights groups have long crit­i­cized the al-Ma­liki gov­ern­ment of strate­gi­cally and po­lit­i­cally alien­at­ing Iraq’s Sunni pop­u­la­tion. Some for­eign pol­icy an­a­lysts say the gov­ern­ment’s sec­tar­ian pos­ture has prompted res­i­dents in Sunni-dom­i­nated ar­eas of An­bar prov­ince to tol­er­ate the pres­ence of al Qaeda-linked groups such as the Is­lamic State in Iraq and the Le­vant, which seized con­trol of Fal­lu­jah last week.

At a min­i­mum, the group’s rise sig­nals a re­ver­sal from the mid-2000s, when Sunni tribal lead­ers aligned with U.S. forces in An­bar or­ga­nized move­ments known as the Sunni Awak­en­ing and the Sons of Iraq, which took firm stands against al Qaeda fight­ers in the area.

Al­though some Sunni tribes are still fight­ing along­side the Iraqi mil­i­tary to re­cap­ture Fal­lu­jah from the ex­trem­ists, the Shi­ite prime min­is­ter has strug­gled to per­suade the Sunni pop­u­la­tion to stand firmly with him in the fight against al Qaeda.

Vow­ing to rout mil­i­tants from Fal­lu­jah this week, Mr. al-Ma­liki called on the city’s res­i­dents to ex­pel the al Qaeda fight­ers on their own or face an all-out as­sault from Iraqi forces.

Gen. Mo­hammed al-Askari, an Iraqi mil­i­tary spokesman, said Tues­day that the Iraqi air force suc­cess­fully struck an op­er­a­tions center for the ex­trem­ist fight­ers on the out­skirts of Ra­madi. The gen­eral told The As­so­ci­ated Press that the strike killed 25 fight­ers, but he did not pro­vide de­tails about how that death toll was con­firmed.

Fal­lu­jah and Ra­madi hold vi­tal places in the col­lec­tive mem­o­ries of U.S. ser­vice mem­bers who par­tic­i­pated in the early years of the mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tion of Iraq.

Fal­lu­jah, specif­i­cally, emerged as a sym­bol of al Qaeda-style re­sis­tance to the U.S. pres­ence in 2004, when Sunni ex­trem­ists hung the charred bod­ies of four Amer­i­can se­cu­rity con­trac­tors from a bridge over the Euphrates River in the city.

U.S. forces launched an ag­gres­sive re­sponse dur­ing the months that fol­lowed, cul­mi­nat­ing in a Ma­rine-led of­fen­sive on Fal­lu­jah in Novem­ber and De­cem­ber 2004. More than 80 Amer­i­cans were killed dur­ing house-to-house fight­ing and street com­bat that routed the in­sur­gents from the city.

That ex­trem­ists once again have taken con­trol is be­yond dis­turb­ing for many U.S. vet­er­ans of the war.

“To see re­ports and im­ages of al Qaeda in the streets is in­fu­ri­at­ing,” said Rep. Dun­can Hunter, Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­can and a for­mer Ma­rine of­fi­cer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Hunter, who fought in Fal­lu­jah in early 2004 be­fore the ma­jor U.S. of­fen­sive, said Tues­day that it is “as if our vic­to­ries count for noth­ing.”

Oth­ers echo his sen­ti­ment.

David Bellavia, a for­mer sol­dier who re­ceived the Sil­ver Star for his role in lib­er­at­ing Fal­lu­jah, com­pared the city’s re­cap­ture by ex­trem­ists to the fall of Saigon and de­scribed Fal­lu­jah as sa­cred ground and his gen­er­a­tion’s Nor­mandy.

“Fal­lu­jah has no tac­ti­cal value to the enemy at all,” Mr. Bellavia said in an ar­ti­cle pub­lished Mon­day on the web­site of The Bata­vian, a news­pa­per in his home­town of Batavia, N.Y. “It’s noth­ing but a moral vic­tory. If you want to take over Iraq, you cap­ture Basra and Bagh­dad. Tak­ing over Fal­lu­jah is noth­ing but a thumb in the eye to Amer­i­cans.”

For Mr. Reynolds, now a cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer and vol­un­teer fire­fighter in Adams County, Wash., the sit­u­a­tion is more per­sonal than po­lit­i­cal.

“Th­ese peo­ple have been at war since bib­li­cal times,” he said Tues­day. “I don’t think we should be blam­ing the White House. We went in and ob­tained our goal and our ob­jec­tive, and the rest is his­tory.”

On a per­sonal level, he said, the news that al Qaeda fight­ers are back in Fal­lu­jah is “su­per dis­heart­en­ing” and makes him won­der “was I shot for noth­ing?”

“I lost a great friend that day over there,” Mr. Reynolds said, chok­ing up for a mo­ment as he re­ferred to Ma­rine Sgt. Rafael Per­alta, who was posthu­mously awarded a Navy Cross for pulling a live grenade un­der his body to spare Mr. Reynolds and oth­ers from the blast dur­ing com­bat in Fal­lu­jah.


Mourn­ers and Sunni gun­men rally against Iraq’s Shi­ite-led gov­ern­ment dur­ing the fu­neral of a man killed when clashes erupted be­tween al Qaeda gun­men and Iraqi sol­diers in Fal­lu­jah on Jan. 3.

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