Will Fallujah be Iraq‘s Bunker Hill?
By Henry C.K. Liu, April 28, 2004
The siege of Fallujah, a town of 300,000 people 35 miles west of Baghdad, began as an operation of vengeance in response to the brutal killing and mutilation of four US contract security
personnel by an angry mob filled with the hatred of an occupied nation. After two weeks of bloody clashes, a fragile cease fire arranged to allow negotiation to proceed failed to put an end to
sporadic gun battles and night bombardments by US planes. While US officials on Friday, April 23 announced an extension of the shaky cease-fire in volatile Fallujah for at least two more
days, Shiite insurgents in the southern holy city of Najaf, directed by Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical young cleric, were reported to be stockpiling weapons „in mosques, shrines and schools,“ as
alleged by US administrator L. Paul Bremer, in preparation for defense against 2,500 US soldiers encircling the city. It was characterized by a US spokesman as a „potentially explosive
situation,“ particularly if the US should decide to hit holy sites allegedly used as cover by insurgents.
About the Author:
Henry C K Liu was born in Hong Kong and educated at Harvard University in architecture and urban design. His interest in
economics and international relations started when he participated in interdisciplinary work on urban and regional development as a professor at the University of California Los Angeles, Harvard and
Columbia. He is currently chairman of Liu Investment Group, a private entity based in New York.
The twin sieges of Fallujah and Najaf have presented the Bush administration with a crisis of strategy in Iraq. The US military has been criticized by sources both domestic and foreign for excessive
use of force, especially in Fallujah. So far, the punitive operations launched by US Marines have killed more Iraqi civilians than insurgents. Policymakers in Washington fear popular uprisings could explode
across Iraq in other cities if the US military were to storm in force either Fallujah or Najaf.
The agreement to continue negotiations over the standoff in Fallujah came as US occupation
forces gear up for a full-scale assault on the town, where thousands of dispersed insurgents have been trading fire with US Marines during the so-called cease fire period. Reports from Camp
David where President Bush was spending the weekend of April 24 suggested that an immediate full-scale assault had been ruled out, in preference for a plan to use Iraqi security forces to
patrol the streets of Fallujah with US soldiers to regain control of the city. The US insists that insurgents turn in heavy weapons as a condition for lifting the siege, a demand that borders on
fantasy, totally disconnected to any awareness of the suicide squad mentality of jihad fighters. Fallujah, a sandy town of wide boulevards defining large neighborhoods of narrow alleys along
the Euphrates River west of Baghdad, poses an immensely complicated and dangerous urban combat terrain for invaders. Even precision attacks by guided missiles or pinpoint bombing on
an estimated 2,000 widely dispersed hard-core Sunni Muslim insurgents cannot be effectively carried out without destroying most of the town, along with its civilian population. Swift raids by
Marine riflemen, backed by helicopters and gunships, will incur high US casualty and may have to go on indefinitely with no decisive outcome.
Meanwhile, violent incidents continued to explode across the
country in increasing frequency, as US AC-130 gunships attack targets in Fallujah under cover of night to avoid media coverage. In Baghdad, US soldiers fired on a crowd of Iraqi bystanders,
mostly children, killing one teenager and wounding 14 children after a roadside bomb detonated next to a patrol of four Humvees, killing one US soldier. Brig. General Mark Kimmitt, chief
spokesman of the US occupation forces, in what now has become routine response, said in Baghdad that the military was „investigating“ the incident. As of this writing, an explosion in a
chemical company under investigation killed two US soldiers and wounded a number of others.
A member of the United States Coast Guard died of wounds received when three boats rigged with suicide bombs which
seven sailors were trying to intercept in the southern port of Basra blew up on Saturday, April 23. The terminal at Basra was damaged to the extent of reducing by 900,000 barrels of crude
oil exports out of a normal daily flow of 1.6 million. In Fallujah, US Marines, with the support of an AC-130 gunship, killed 25 people in a house on Saturday April 23, during a battle after an
insurgent carrying a mortar was seen entering the building, without no kill confirmation on the insurgent. Saturday, April 23, a day of widespread violence, at least 14 Iraqi civilians were
killed in Baghdad when mortar bombs and rockets were fired into a crowded market in Sadr City, the poor neighborhood that is the stronghold of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who has declared
solidarity with the Sunnis fighting US soldiers in Falluja. A roadside bomb killed 14 Iraqis traveling in a bus south of Baghdad. At least seven US soldiers were killed in two attacks by insurgents.
Mr. Bremer, who is to leave Iraq by June 30 after handing sovereignty over to an interim Iraqi government, warned on Friday that „Iraq faces a choice.“ His message, in starkly
grimmer tone than his usual upbeat message about life returning to normal, was that the country could miss its best chance to establish a democratic government, as if that was the natural
desire of the insurgents. Mr. Bush is described by many officials as convinced that if the insurgents hold off US forces there, they will try to do the same in other Iraqi cities. Thus Fallujah has
become a symbol of US resolve, a new domino theory. „The stakes are too high for us to leave,“ he said on Friday evening at a campaign event in Florida. „This is an historic moment. You see,
a free society will be a peaceful society. A free society in the heart of the Middle East will begin to change the world for the better. No, they‘re trying to shake our will, but America will never
be run out of Iraq by a bunch of thugs and killers.“ Unfortunately, history shows that most wars since the last World War had been waged by the US, a self-professed free society.
Facing a Hobson‘s choice over a no-win Iraqi quagmire, President Bush, after declaring on Friday evening in Florida that „America will never be run out of Iraq by a bunch of thugs and killers,“
despite available overwhelming force at his immediate disposal, was forced to recognize the counterproductive consequence of a full-force assault on Fallujah, keeping in mind that a fierce battle
there runs the risk of triggering broad uprisings all over Iraq. April has been a casualty-ridden month, with 115 US war deaths, the same number as the invasion phase of the war, and there
are no signs that insurgent attacks on US forces will subside in the near future.
The president and his advisers are reportedly keenly aware that
if the operation to root out the insurgents kills many civilians - or simply appears to when reports are broadcast on Arab networks - it could spark uprisings elsewhere around Iraq, from Baghdad
even to some Shiite strongholds where tolerance of the American occupation has since dissipated.
Concerned about the repercussions an attack could generate
across Iraq, the Arab region and the Islamic world, senior U.S. military and civilian officials said they had decided to try to confront a band of hard-core Sunni Muslim insurgents, who have
effectively taken over Fallujah, by having US Marines conduct patrols in the city alongside Iraqi security forces. The new strategy, reached in consultation with the White House over the
weekend, represents an effort by the US to avoid a military incursion that could entail close-range urban combat, civilian casualties and a wave of retributive attacks outside Fallujah,
further poisoning relations between Iraqis and U.S. occupation forces. „A military solution is not going to be the solution here unless everything else fails,“ said Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis,
commander of the 1st Marine Division, which is responsible for securing Fallujah and other areas of western Iraq. General Kimmitt said efforts to deal with the insurgency in Fallujah had
shifted to „a political track.“
The strategy shift is the latest in a series of U.S. policy reversals designed to placate Iraq‘s Sunnis, a once-powerful minority
whose postwar disenfranchisement has fueled attacks on US troops and Iraqi security forces. US occupation authority announced it would hire back some senior military officers and
teachers who were dismissed by the authority because they had been members of the Baa‘th Party. „Regime change“ turned out to be a major policy blunder. The US has also decided to take a
similar approach with militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Although US soldiers have mobilized outside the holy city of Najaf, where Moqtada and many of his militiamen
have congregated, General Kimmitt said there were „no timelines“ for the soldiers to enter the city. US officials continue to rely on Iraqi interlocutors to persuade Moqtada to demobilize
his illegal militia, whose members have repeatedly attacked US and coalition troops stationed in central Iraq. „We would like to obtain a final agreement in Najaf,“ Kimmitt said.
Together, the latest approaches to dealing with Fallujah and Najaf represent a new effort by the U.S. military and civilian leadership in Iraq to avoid the sort of violent confrontations that
occurred earlier this month, when Marines fought running battles in Fallujah and Sadr‘s militiamen skirmished with soldiers in Baghdad and across central Iraq.
If US Marines patrolling the city are fired upon, General Mattis said, they would shoot back and reassess the use of joint patrols or whether more aggressive military action was
warranted. „If we do not gain control of Fallujah using joint patrols, then we‘ve got to look at other options,“ he said. Some military officials have privately voiced skepticism about the
patrols, saying they expect the insurgents to fire upon the Marines. „We need to engage them on our own terms,“ one officer said.
Although a group of Iraqi civic leaders had agreed to a peace
deal with US occupation authorities on April 19, the local leaders have failed to fulfill a key element of the agreement -- getting the insurgents to surrender heavy weapons. If the civic leaders
could not deliver this key US demand, occupation officials said, the Marines would be left with no option but to resort to force again.
In Washington, a senior Bush administration official said the
decision to rely for now on patrols rather than an attack was based partly on the concern of President Bush‘s aides about the fallout an assault could trigger in an Arab world already
embittered by recent US policy. The decision to use joint patrols, with heavy US armor escorting uniformed Iraqi police and civil defense officers, also serves to shift the context of any future
confrontation away from the notion of collective punishment for the mutilation of the contractors. Iraqi security forces interviewed in Fallujah on Sunday were apprehensive about the
idea of patrolling with US Marines. „I don‘t feel safe because the Americans are not safe,“ police Capt. Jassim Mohammed Abid told the New York Times. „They‘re going to get shot at. They
can‘t guarantee safety for themselves, so how can they guarantee safety for me?“
General Kimmitt referred to the first joint patrol, which is planned
for Tuesday, April 27, as both a test and a possible watershed. „That will be the first step into returning the city to a sense of stability that eventually will result in our being able to bring a
tremendous amount of funds, civil affairs money and expertise into that city,“ he said. On the heels of Bremer‘s meeting on Saturday, the occupation authority formally announced $70
million in funding for civic improvements in Fallujah and nearby Ramadi: $20 million upfront and $50 million soon. A drop in the bucket of Iraqi oil worth billions the occupation has confiscated
to fund its patronage.
The US military surrounding Fallujah - and, indeed, all across Iraq - took quiet and well-hidden steps to prepare for an all-out
assault that increasingly seemed inevitable to US commanders. US Marines prepared for attack even as they were under orders to return fire only if threatened; Marine commanders said they
had little doubt insurgents were likewise using the pause to dig in for combat. All across Iraq, US and remaining coalition forces were repositioning and preparing for suicide bombings, mortar
attacks, ambushes and even popular uprisings in case an onslaught on Fallujah prompted violence elsewhere, according to Pentagon and military officials. Senior US commanders in the
Middle East, echoing officials in Washington, seemed to be exceedingly concerned about possible casualties in Fallujah - and how the operation to quell the insurgency would be played
throughout the Arab world. Thus, US military and civilian officials in Iraq have begun an „information operation,“ according to senior officials in Washington, to prepare for the battlefield of public opinion.
Every schoolchild in the US knows the story of the Battle of Bunker Hill in the American War of Independence. Bernard Baylin
, in an essay for the Massachusetts Historical Society describes it as a tale of great blunders. The first blunder was the decision of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety to fortify Charlestown
heights and attempt to hold it against the British, while in fact the Americans did not have guns capable of reaching Boston effectively from Bunker Hill. And in addition, forces installed there
were almost certain to be cut off since the British warships controlled Boston harbor and its confluence with the Charles River, and could easily keep the slim neck that joined
Charlestown to the mainland under heavy fire. Nor, once committed, did the American commanders choose their ground wisely. The high point of the mile-long Charlestown peninsula
was Bunker Hill - it rose 110 feet, and adjoined the only route of retreat, the roadway back to Cambridge. But the spot chosen for fortification was not Bunker Hill but Breed‘s Hill, only 75 feet high
and 600 yards farther from the neck, controllable from the higher ground at its rear and isolated from the sole route of retreat. And even in the best positions the ill-equipped, altogether
untrained troops of the New England army could hardly be expected to hold out against sustained attacks by British regulars led by no less that four general officers experienced in warfare on two continents.
That for two and a half hours of intense battle, greatly outnumbered, the brave Americans did just that - held out until, their powder gone and forced to fight with gun butts and rocks,
they were bayoneted out of the stifling, dust-choked redoubt they had thrown up on Breed‘s Hill - was the result not only of great personal heroism but also of the blunders of the British. In
complete control of the sea, the British could have landed troops on the north side of Charlestown neck and struck the rebels in the rear while sending their main force against them face-on. But
in an excess of caution they chose instead to land at the tip and march straight up against the fortified American lines. Such strategy was confined to sending a single column along the thin
strip of beach on the north shore of Charlestown peninsula hoping to reach the rear of the entrenchments by land and thus begin an overland encirclement. But this effort was doomed from
the start. A delay in beginning the attack gave the Americans time to throw a barrier across the beach and to place behind it a company of New Hampshire riflemen capable of stopping the
encircling column. The British attack therefore was altogether a frontal one, two ranks moving on a front almost half-a-mile long toward the set battle line, a line formed on the Boston Bay side
by the deserted houses of Charlestown, the redoubt on Breed‘s Hill, its breastwork extension and a fortified rail fence, and completed on the far beach by the New Hampshiremen and their barricade.
June 17, 1775, was an absolutely still, brilliantly clear summer‘s day. Viewers in Boston only half a mile away could make out the stages of the battle clearly. The first assault was begun by the
column of light infantry on the far beach, the American left flank, and was followed by the cannonading of Charlestown on the right flank, which set the town in flames; then came the slow
forward movement of the main battle line: two ranks of scarlet-clad grenadiers and light infantrymen, almost 2,000 in all, marching in full kit, pounds of knapsacks, blankets, food, and
ammunition - across irregular fields of knee-deep grass broken by fences and low stone walls. The American troops - no more than 1,500 men at any time, at the end only half that - held their
fire until the first British line was within 150 feet of the barricades; when they fired it was almost at point-blank range, and the result was slaughter. The British front line collapsed in
heaps of dead and wounded - „as thick as sheep in a field.“ General Howe‘s entire staff was wiped out in the main attack against the rail fence. Great gaps appeared in the once parade
-perfect ranks, and the survivors spun back. But they were professional soldiers, led by experienced and determined officers with reputations to make. They quickly regrouped for the second
attack, directed now squarely at the redoubt and breastwork. Again the Americans withheld fire until the last moment, and again when it came it tore the line of upright marching men to
shreds: „an incessant stream of fire poured from the rebel lines,“ a British officer wrote, „it seemed a continued sheet of fire for near thirty minutes.“ The forward units fell back against the
second line moving up, then turned and fled back down the hill. Some of Howe‘s remaining officers begged him then to break off the attack and review the situation. Instead, he called for
reinforcements, ordered his troops to throw off their heavy equipment, stationed his artillery where it could rake the whole American line, and called for a third assault - a bayonet charge
against the central barricades. Again the advancing line was thrown back by the defenders‘ fire, and again great gaps were torn in the marching ranks. But this time the fire was less intense
and it could not be sustained. The 700 exhausted defenders had been sent no reinforcements; they had no supplies except what they had carried with them the night before. As the third charge
neared the line of fortification their powder ran out, and though they fought desperately with everything they could lay hands on, they could no longer force the British back. Grenadiers and light
infantrymen poured over the parapets and through the thin barricades, and dove into groups of defenders. The Americans turned and fled up over and around Bunker Hill to the roads that
led to safety. So the battle came to an end. The American freedom fighters lost the Battle of Bunker Hill, but their spirit won the respect of the world and within a year, independence was declared on July 4, 1776.
Heroes on both sides redeemed, perhaps, the blunders. The American hero was above all William Prescott, in command in the redoubt, whose nerve held throughout, who steeled the small
band of armed farmers, and somehow made them into an effective fighting force. Miraculously, he survived, though Joseph Warren - physician, orator, liberal spokesman, writer, who had
been appointed major general but who chose to fight as a private soldier in the redoubt - was killed in the final charge. A half dozen others - John Stark, Henry Dearborn, Seth Pomeroy,
and Andrew McClary - would be remembered for their valor and leadership. And the commanding officer throughout the engagement, the venerable Israel Putnam, though his original
battle plan had been ill-conceived, though he failed to resupply or reinforce the defenders at the barricades, though indeed he was unable to induce the hundreds of men who watched the
action from Bunker Hill and from the roadways a mere 1,000 yards from the battle to come to the aid of the defenders - „Old Put“ too would be honored in the end.
Half of the British forces had been casualties; perhaps a third of the 1,500 Americans engaged had been killed, wounded, or captured. What did the battle prove? Baylin wrote that it proved
that raw, untrained American troops could fight, and fight well - but only if they had to; that success would come to the British only if they responded flexibly and imaginatively to the
unorthodox demands of warfare in colonial territories 3,000 miles from home; and finally, that if the still disunited, still legally British states of America were to fight with any hope of success a
continental war against the greatest military power on earth, a leader of great personal force and of great military and political skill would have to be forthcoming.
On July 3 1775, George Washington took command of the American army besieging British Boston and went on to become father figure of a new nation.
A June 18 Letter, a day after the Battle of Bunker Hill, from
Abigail to her husband, John Adams who was in Philadelphia representing Massachusetts at the Continental Congress: „The Day; perhaps the decisive Day is come on which the fate of
America depends….. The Spirits of the people are very good. The loss of Charlestown affects them no more than a Drop in the Bucket ….“ June 19
James Warren of Plymouth, a member of the Massachusetts General Court, married Mercy Otis of Barnstable in 1754. James, his wife Mercy, and her brother James Otis all were outspoken
opponents of British rule. Mercy wrote a number of propagandistic plays and poetry in the Patriot cause; after the war, she published an early history of the Revolution. In his June
18 letter, James Warren recounts the „extraordinary nature of the events“ leading up to and following the Battle of Bunker Hill. „Night before last our Troops possessed themselves of a Hill in
Charlestown & had time only to heave up an Imperfect Breastwork the regular Troops from the Batterys in Boston & two Men of War in the Ferryway began early next Morning a Heavy
Fire on them which was Continued till about Noon when they Landed a large number of Troops & after a Stout resistance & great Loss on their side dispossessed our Men, who with the
Accumulated disadvantages of being Exposed to the fire of their Cannon & the want of Ammunition & not being supported by fresh Troops were obliged to abandon the Town & retire to our
Lines towards Cambridge to which they made a very handsome Addition last Night. With a Savage Barbarity never practised among Civilized Nations they fired & have Utterly destroyed the Town of Charlestown.“
After immigrating to America from England in 1746, Palmer operated a glassworks and various other manufacturing works in Germantown, now a part of Quincy, Massachusetts. He served in
the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in 1774 and 1775 and became a brigadier general in the Massachusetts militia in 1776. In his June 19 letter to John Adams, he relates the events of the
Battle of Bunker Hill in detail, including the death of their mutual friend Dr. Joseph Warren and the American army‘s desperate shortage of gunpowder. „You will hear by others who will write
tomorrow, such particulars as I am not possessed of: Soon after the Regulars landed, they Set Fire to the Town of Charlestown, & that day, yesterday & this Day they have consumed most of the
Houses as far as Penny-Ferry; and they have possession of all that part of Charlestown, & are encamped upon Bunker‘s Hill; & we are encamped upon Prospect Hill, Winters Hill, & at the Bridge
leading to Inman‘s
...... Yesterday & this day, they have Cannonnaded us, but to no purpose; & our people, by Small Parties have picked off some of
their out Guards: We expect another action very soon. Do send us Powder, & then we Shall, by the blessing of Heaven, soon destroy this Hornets Nest.“
It is a sad testament to the human condition that two centuries later, the US, out of its glorious history of being the fighting spirit of freedom, finds itself playing the ugly role of the hornets nest
against freedom fighters in Iraq. The Battle of Fallujah may well be a historic moment, as President Bush claimed, one of the finest moment of Arab nationalists for whom the bell tolls.