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What If?: The Battle That Did Not Have to Happen

Now that the United States has declared an end to the combat stage of its operations in Iraq, as if that is stopping IEDs from going off and deterring insurgents from attacking, it is time to start the inevitable process known as what if." All historians and pundits sooner or later do this.

For example, what if someone had stood up to Dick Cheney and prevented him from browbeating the U.S. intelligence community into giving the Bush administration the intelligence analyses that suited its preconceptions. What if the U.S. military had planned for a prolonged insurgency? What if Paul Bremer hadn't disbanded the Iraqi army?

And on the subject of private security contractors, what if the U.S. military had done something different after four Blackwater contractors were killed in Fallujah in 2004?

Recall that on March 31, 2004 Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah ambushed a convoy containing four Blackwater contractors who were guarding a convoy carrying kitchen supplies to a military base, for the catering company Eurest Support Services

The four contractors, Scott Helvenston, Jerko Zovko, Wesley Batalona and Michael Teague, were dragged from their cars, beaten, and set ablaze. Their burned corpses were then dragged through the streets before two of them were hung over a bridge crossing the Euphrates.

Photos of the event were released to news agencies worldwide, causing a great deal of indignation and moral outrage in the United States, and prompting the announcement of an upcoming "pacification" of the city.

Fallujah was already a hotbed of discontent, thanks to past U.S. screw-ups. In April 2003, just a month after the initial U.S. invasion, US forces opened fire on a group of unarmed demonstrators, claiming they were fired at. Fallujah's mayor, Taha Bedaiwi al-Alwani, said that two people were killed and 14 wounded. Although the majority of the residents was Sunni and had supported Saddam Hussein's rule, Fallujah was one of the most peaceful areas of the country just after his fall. There was very little looting and the new mayor was pro-United States.

Although people knew at the time and have said many times since, it still deserves mentioning that sending U.S. troops into Fallujah after the killing of the Blackwater contractors was the wrong thing to do. It led to a failed siege of Fallujah in April 2004 (Operation Vigilant Resolve, also known as the First Battle of Fallujah, done by US Marines)

Thus, the intended Marine Corps strategy of foot patrols, less aggressive raids, humanitarian aid, and close cooperation with local leaders was suspended on orders to mount a military operation to clear guerrillas from Fallujah. 27 American servicemen were killed in and around Fallujah during the battle, as well as hundreds of Iraqis, both civilians and insurgents.

After months of counter-insurgency activity this was followed by a joint U.S.-Iraqi-British offensive of November 7, 2004 named Operation Phantom Fury, also known as the Second Battle of Fallujah.

In retrospect these battled were not fated to happen. The might has been avoided if the Bush administration had actually listed to the voices of its commanders on the ground, which, by the way, is something it always claimed it did. But it appears that was more rhetoric than reality.

Nowhere is this better detailed than in the book New Dawn: The Battles for Fallujah by Richard S. Lowry, published this past May.

Let me quote from the foreword:

Violence was down during the first three months of 2004 because of Saddam's capture, but that changed on March 31 when insurgents in Fallujah dragged four Blackwater contractors from their SUVs, beat them savagely, and set them on fire. The brutal desecration of their bodies--pictures of which were infamously broadcast around the world--prompted some leaders to advocate immediate retaliation. Although a response was justified, hindsight tells us a more carefully considered reaction would have better served our short- and long-term goals.

And from the first chapter:

Within hours of the Blackwater ambush on the last day of March 2004, the Marines moved to cordon off the entire city. Inside, the enemy prepared for the inevitable assault. Major General James Mattis and Lieutenant General James Conway, however, recommended restraint. ...

As we review the actions in Fallujah yesterday, the murder of four private security personnel in the most brutal way, we are convinced that this act was spontaneous mob action. Under the wrong circumstances this could have taken place in any city in Iraq. ... We must remember that the citizens and officials of Fallujah were already gathering up and delivering what was left of three victims before asked to do so, and continue in their efforts to collect up what they can of the dismembered remnants of the fourth.

We have a well thought out campaign plan that considers the Fallujah problem across its very complicated spectrum. This plan most certainly includes kinetic action, but going overly kinetic at this juncture plays into the hands of the opposition in exactly the way they assume we will. This is why they shoot and throw hand grenades out of crowds, to bait us into overreaction. The insurgents did not plan this crime, it dropped into their lap. We should not fall victim to their hopes for a vengeful response. To react to this provocation, as heinous as it is, will likely negate the efforts of the 82nd Airborne Division paid for in blood, and complicate our campaign plan, which we have not yet been given the opportunity to implement. ...

The Marine commanders did not want to further disenfranchise the people of Fallujah. They told their corps commander, U.S. Army Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez that they could find the perpetrators of the ambush and bring them to justice within two weeks. Sanchez passed on the Marines' recommendation. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, however, was not impressed with the suggestion for a tempered response and ordered the Marines to attack Conway and Mattis had delivered their recommendation as to how they thought they should respond, but when they received their orders, they--like any good Marines--unflinchingly obeyed them.

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