Perhaps more than any other element, contextual local perspective is missing from analysis about Iraq as a whole and Fallujah in particular. Western media, media consumers, and the political class offer strategic assessments about the conflict that confine the opinion and motivations of Iraqis to the general abstraction of religious sects and cherrypicked polls. It is a glaring oversight.
I spoke with dozens of Fallujans — policemen, interpreters, day laborers, politicians, volunteers for the neighborhood watch — in my quest to understand them and I still do not have the complete picture. And a single interview certainly cannot encapsulate the diversity of opinion in a major city. Sections of Fallujah trend together but have different atmospherics; you will get many more waves to a Humvee on the south side of the city than you will in the northwest, for example. But many narratives and beliefs are widely shared among the population, and the people of Fallujah have a worthy spokesman in “Leo” the interpreter.
Born and raised in Fallujah, Leo’s good English skills were acquired from watching satellite TV for three years after the initial invasion. He recently began working with the US Army as an interpreter to support his family, and this involvement is still unusual and fraught with peril, given his local citizenship; even with recently improved security, Leo is camera shy and walks around with a scarf to protect his family from any remaining mujahadeen or nationalist insurgents. He is a quiet fellow with a gentle demeanor. And importantly, he is educated, seemingly candid about the Americans he works for, and proud to be Fallujan.
LWJ: When I speak to Fallujans, many say that it was all outsiders causing the insurgency, but a lot of it was certainly driven by locals. What portion of the insurgency was really local? Most of it?
LWJ: So why are people afraid to say, “Yeah, we used to fight the Americans?”
Leo: No, not everyone. Many people you miss who will say, frankly, “Yes, we fought you.” But maybe he will say, “I didn’t [personally] fight you, but [the Fallujan people] fought you. [Resistance] is a normal thing, and a right for everyone.
LWJ: Right. And so when al Qaeda came in, and by “al Qaeda” I really mean all of the outside jihadists, the Fallujans welcomed them to help fight the Americans?
Leo: Yes, because the first mission in Fallujah, Americans could not communicate with the Fallujans correctly, and they didn’t understand the nature of the people. [Fallujans] are good people, they work within the rules of their culture and they stick with them. So, Americans came from another culture overseas, they didn’t understand the people, they didn’t talk to them at the right time, so you [wonder], what happened to the American mind, [with] how they communicate with the people right now. Why didn’t they do the same thing before? So it is not all the Fallujans’ fault, Americans [have responsibility].
I think all of it happened because of a little mistake. A mob tortured contractors, killed the contractors [at Blackwater Bridge] in 2003. They hung them and dragged them and all of that [stuff] happened. And the Americans took revenge on all people, and they didn’t make a suitable solution to that particular issue. Maybe you could have had intelligence, videos, [informants], maybe you could have [targeted] the same people responsible for the [killings], and dealt with it a better way.
So everything that happened before was completely built on the first mistake.
Note: Many other Fallujans and a Marine intelligence officer also cite the incident when soldiers from the 82nd Airborne fired into a demonstration after taking fire from insurgents as a significant reason the insurgency gained local support.
LWJ: When did things go bad for al Qaeda?
Leo: I think it was maybe 10 months ago? Ten months, one year, that’s it. And everything began in Ar Ramadi, the Awakening of the al Anbar tribes. And when we see it’s working, Fallujans talked about the same actions and tried to save the people and save Fallujah from al Qaeda.
LWJ: And what did al Qaeda do that was so bad, specifically?
Leo: Specifically, they targeted our mosques, our imams.
LWJ: Why would they do that?
Leo: Because the mosque is the most powerful place in the city. You know that Fallujah is called “the city of mosques.” There are more than 105 mosques in one small town, they are very important and they are a powerful point. So [al Qaeda] started killing everyone, and those people were innocent, they didn’t have anything to do with the Americans.
Note: During my last visit in January 2007, the multiple calls to prayer and messages broadcast from mosques would urge Fallujans to fight Americans, so I found it surprising that al Qaeda would target imams. But as usual, the radicals overplayed their hand by forcing many imams to play prepared messages and killing religious leaders who were not extreme enough in their religious views.
LWJ: But what motivated al Qaeda to do that though? Why would they start killing those innocent people?
Leo: I think the major goal was chaos … to make big chaos. And everyone knows [that the radical mujahadeen] were pushed [into Iraq] from beyond the borders: Iran particularly, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait. Nobody wants Iraq to stabilize, to be a good country and a democratic country, because democracy will affect them, and they are dictatorships. There is a prince in Kuwait, there is a King in Arabia, there is what everyone calls a republic, but it’s not a republic, it’s a kingdom in Jordan. And Iran, Iran wants to take over the whole area, if possible. So they see an opportunity to take over Iraq, and they take it. That’s what everyone thinks, just like what I’ve said.
LWJ: One thing I’m curious about is, what do the Fallujans think of the Marines as fighters? Do they respect them, hate them, fear them? I know that your culture is very proud and tough. You fight. What do they think of the Marines?
Leo: You know, al Qaeda and other mujahadeen say that the Americans are not tough, they are just cartoon soldiers, just like characters in cartoon films, but most of the people see the fact that they are tough people. And they are so patient. And they can fight outside of their country overseas, and I don’t think al Qaeda or someone else can fight like Marines, overseas and so distant from home.
LWJ: What do you specifically, and Fallujans in general, think about the central Iraqi government?
Leo: We like the thought of a central Iraqi government, but we don’t like the [current] Iraqi government, because the Shia really want to separate and maybe, maybe, join Iran. The Kurdish want to separate and maybe join Turkey, or Jordan or Iran I don’t know what they want to do. And we will stay here and be in the middle, and that will be our weakest point. It’s not good for Iraqis. Iraq has been Iraq, united. If you compare us to the USA, Iraq is a small country, so if you divide it, it will be small, small, small countries. And maybe the south of Iraq will talk the Iranian language, and the north will talk the Turkish language, so we will disappear, just like that.
LWJ: What do you think, is political reconciliation with the Shia government possible?
Leo: There are a few obstacles between reconciliation of everyone, I can tell you that. There is no reconciliation, that’s something that came with the Americans. You can find this in Afghanistan, you can find it in Iraq, you can find it in Vietnam. When the American came, they came with a problem, and they came with a solution. They imagined the problem, and they imagined the solution. Iraqis lived so many, many, many years without fighting each other, why when America came, [Iraqis] realized there is Sunni and Shia and Kurdish?
LWJ: Well, my opinion is that it’s partly because of the outside influences that you mentioned wanting to stir up that fight, those differences.
Leo: Exactly, exactly. But what I’m saying is I’m not blaming the United States for everything, I’m saying, when you take charge, you have to take the full responsibility. And one of the responsibilities you have is to close the borders between us and foreign influences. And that’s the solution. Once you cut off the borders from foreign influence, everyone will realize one thing: we are Iraqi, we have to support each other. The problem does not originate in Iraq.
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