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