April 11, 2004
Fallouja Residents Call U.S. Tactics Oppressive
Those who fled the city describe increasing
sympathy for fighters despite U.S. claims.
By Alissa J. Rubin, Times Staff Writer
Crowded together on sagging couches in the
Baghdad living room of a distant cousin, Umm Samir
and 25 other female relatives and their children
clamored Saturday to tell their stories of U.S.
troops' weeklong siege of Fallouja.
The women, some of whom had just fled the city
that morning, spoke of small victories, such as
having stockpiled enough water, and painful
defeats, like the sight of neighbors shot dead in
the street and ambulances pocked with bullet
holes. But above all, their accounts suggested
empathy with the insurgents who had been fighting
tenaciously to keep Marines from taking control of
their city of 300,000 people.
"The mujahedin are our sons," said Umm Samir, 62,
who has lived in Fallouja for 37 years. "I would
become a mujahedin myself. I can't bear to see
Fallouja being bombed and do nothing about it. It
makes my blood boil."
Long a stronghold of support for Saddam Hussein's
regime, Fallouja has been extremely volatile since
the beginning of the occupation. But in recent
days, U.S. military commanders have portrayed the
citizens of Fallouja as victims of the insurgents,
unsupportive of their efforts to drive American
soldiers out of their city and all of Iraq.
"We are confronting and killing the evil-doers who
have a grasp on this city," Lt. Col. Gregg Olson,
who has overseen the military activity in
Fallouja, said Saturday. "I like to think that the
60,000 people who left agree that the terrorists
and criminals in their city have to be
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the top U.S. military
spokesman in Iraq, said earlier in the week: "We
are horrified by the fact that the insurgents are
trying to conduct their operations amongst the
population that doesn't support them."
Those who have fled Fallouja, however, painted a
picture of a city made unbearable by U.S. military
tactics, and a populace ever more sympathetic to
the armed uprising.
After months of house searches, arrests and
slayings by U.S. forces targeting insurgents, the
city was cordoned off by Marines last Sunday.
Under siege, Fallouja has been battered by bombs
and strafed with gunfire. Thousands of women,
children and disabled people have streamed out in
the last two days.
Families who reached Baghdad appeared in shock.
Some were angry. Some wept. Others displayed no
emotion at all.
Umm Marwan, 32, a mother of six, was cooking a
stew of green beans and rice with meat when she
heard the first bomb explode April 4. It was
hardly surprising, since bombs and gunfire had
been a fact of life in her neighborhood of Jolaan,
an insurgent hotbed, for months.
But worried that water might be cut off, she
filled bucket after bucket, and dispatched her
husband to the market to buy food.
At nightfall, she said, bombing began in earnest,
rocking the house and lighting up the clear desert
sky. With each blast, she tried to determine
whether the explosions were moving closer or
Her children wailed, terrified of even lying down
"I didn't know which one to hold," she said.
"At first I thought this was the usual business,
the mujahedin attack the Americans and the
Americans attack back, but on Monday we realized
it was different, we had a night full of bombing
and we started to think about leaving," Umm Marwan
Her daughter Marwa, 13, was one of just three
girls in her class who braved the streets to go to
school April 4 because she did not want to miss
her Arabic grammar exam. "We all thought the
Americans were just bombing to frighten us and the
mujahedin so that the mujahedin would not attack
anymore," Marwa said.
Marines vowed to pacify Fallouja about 10 days
ago, after four U.S. security contractors were
attacked by insurgents and a mob burned and
mutilated their bodies.
In recounting the incident, Marwa indicated that
it was the crowd's behavior -- and not that of the
killers -- that she found questionable.
"The mujahedin killed them and left them alone,"
she said. "It was some of the mob that was there
that pulled them apart."
Some of the women with whom she fled, though, said
even the mutilation was understandable.
"Those people who dragged the Americans' bodies
through the streets, they certainly had had a
brother or a father killed by the Americans; they
had burnt hearts," Umm Samir said.
It wasn't always like that. When Americans first
came to Fallouja, Umm Dahlia said, they smiled and
waved at children and handed out candy. Residents
were wary but curious, the women said.
Soon, though, Americans were kicking down doors as
they searched house to house for insurgents. From
the youngest to the oldest, they said, the
"You see my little son? He's 2 years old, when he
sees [the Americans] he starts spitting," said Umm
Dahlia, sitting next to Umm Samir. "I didn't teach
him to do that."
As the fight for Fallouja intensified last week,
residents' accounts suggested that their sympathy
for the insurgents had strengthened and they had
lost any remaining faith in the Americans.
Numerous witnesses said U.S. forces made it
impossible for many of the injured to reach the
city's main hospitals, shot up ambulances and
stopped people from burying their dead at the main
cemetery; Marines have said the insurgents took up
positions in mosques and used ambulances to ferry
in weapons and fighters.
"You see when the mujahedin saw all the attacks,
many, many men began becoming mujahedin," Marwa
said. "The place is now filled with mujahedin;
there is not a neighborhood in Fallouja that
doesn't have mujahedin."
While the Americans blast instructions over
loudspeakers, the local fighters have benefited
from a dialogue with residents.
On Wednesday, insurgents came to Umm Marwan's door
and told her to leave because they were taking up
positions in the house behind hers and planned to
fire on the Marines. That, the insurgents
anticipated, would draw retaliatory fire and there
was the chance that rockets could hit Umm Marwan's
The family rushed to find somewhere to go, but
many relatives' houses were full. When the family
explained the situation to the insurgents, they
agreed to move their position.
Such small incidents create bonds and build
support for the insurgents' cause. "We feel safe
when we see the mujahedin," said Marwa as she
adjusted her pale green headscarf.
The women believe that the insurgents did them one
last favor Friday as they tried to flee. While
they were trapped in a cramped minibus on a back
road leading out of town, a gunfight broke out
behind them. Ahead was an American roadblock. They
had begun to despair that they would never get
Then, a rapid succession of blasts ripped into
several American vehicles nearby. The soldiers at
the roadblock rushed to help their comrades.
"When they were looking the other way, we were
able to drive through," Marwa said.
Asked if she could imagine a cordial relationship
with the Americans some time in the future, Umm
Marwan's look turned disdainful.
"At one house they bombed they killed a family of
25 -- the entire family except for a 1 1/2-year-old
boy," she said.
"How can I look at people who have done that?"