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Monday, September 13, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

U.S. mishandled Fallujah, general says

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
The Washington Post

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FALLUJAH, Iraq — The outgoing U.S. Marine Corps general in charge of western Iraq said yesterday that he had opposed a Marine assault on militants in the volatile city of Fallujah in April, and the subsequent decision to withdraw from the city and turn over control to a security force comprised of former Iraqi soldiers.

That security force, known as the Fallujah Brigade, was formally disbanded last week. Not only did the brigade fail to combat militants, it actively aided them, surrendering weapons, vehicles and radios to the insurgents, according to senior Marine officers. Some of brigade's members even participated in attacks on Marines ringing the city, the officers said.

The comments by Lt. Gen. James Conway, made shortly after he relinquished command of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, amounted to a stinging broadside against top U.S. military and civilian leaders who ordered the invasion and the withdrawal.

His statements also provided the most-detailed explanation — and justification — of Marine actions in Fallujah this spring, which have been widely criticized for increasing insurgent activity in the city and turning it into a no-go zone for U.S. troops.

Conway arrived in Iraq in March, pledging to accelerate reconstruction projects as a way to subdue Sunni-dominated Anbar province. But he was soon confronted in Fallujah with the killing on March 31 of four U.S. civilian security contractors whose bodies were mutilated by a mob.

Conway said he resisted calls for revenge and advocated instead targeted operations and continued engagement with municipal leaders.

"We felt like we had a method that we wanted to apply to Fallujah: that we ought to probably let the situation settle before we appeared to be attacking out of revenge," he said in an interview with four journalists after his change-of-command ceremony. "Would our system have been better? Would we have been able to bring over the people of Fallujah with our methods? You'll never know that for sure, but at the time we certainly thought so."

He echoed an argument made by many Iraqi politicians and American analysts — that the U.S. attack further radicalized an already-restive city, leading many residents to support the insurgents in the face of an American assault. "When we were told to attack Fallujah, I think we certainly increased the level of animosity that existed," he said.

Conway would not say where the order to attack originated, only that he received an order from his superior at the time, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the overall commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Some senior U.S. officials in Iraq have said the command originated in the White House.

"We follow our orders," Conway said. "We had our say, and we understood the rationale, and we saluted smartly, and we went about the attack."

The Marine assault on Fallujah in April ended abruptly after three days after reports that hundreds of Iraqi civilians had been killed. Conway expressed displeasure at the order he received from Sanchez to cease offensive operations.
 
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"When you order elements of a Marine division to attack a city, you really need to understand what the consequences of that are going to be and not perhaps vacillate in the middle of something like that," he said.

Noting that six Marines were killed and six wounded in those first three days, he said: "Fallujah was not costing us greatly. We were quite happy with the progress of the attack on the city. We thought we were sparing civilian lives everywhere and anywhere that availed itself to us. We thought we were going to be done in a few days. That's the Monday-morning quarterbacking."

The Marine encirclement of Fallujah was highly controversial. Iraqi political leaders and U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi accused U.S. military commanders of engaging in "collective punishment" of the residents of the city.

Although the order to stop the fighting and seek an alternate solution was made above Conway, he was responsible for placing Iraqis in charge of security. He formed the Fallujah Brigade after the head of Iraq's intelligence service, Mohammed Abdullah Shahwani, brought a handful of former Iraqi army generals to the Camp Fallujah Marine base.

The generals offered to set up a force of more than 1,000 former soldiers from Fallujah who would control the city and combat the insurgents, including a cluster of non-Iraqi Islamic militants. In exchange, the Marines pledged to withdraw from the city.

But the brigade never developed as planned. Instead of wearing the desert camouflage uniforms the Marines provided, members dressed in their old Iraqi army fatigues. Instead of confronting insurgents, the former soldiers initially manned traffic checkpoints leading into the city. After a few weeks, even that ended.

Eventually, the 800 AK-47 assault rifles, 27 pickups and 50 radios the Marines gave the brigade wound up in the hands of the insurgents, according to Marine officers. Some Marines manning a checkpoint on the city's eastern fringe were shot at by gunmen they said were Fallujah Brigade members.

With no security forces in Fallujah now — U.S. troops do not patrol inside the city limits — the area has become a haven for insurgents, Marine officers said. Among the fighters believed to be holed up in Fallujah is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who is alleged to have organized car bombings, kidnappings and other attacks targeting Americans and Iraqis.

Over the past week, the U.S. warplanes have bombed suspected insurgent safe houses and other targets in the city. The military said those attacks have killed hundreds of insurgents.

Conway's successor, Lt. Gen. John Sattler, suggested that another incursion into the city would require not just the approval of Iraq's interim prime minister but also likely would involve the joint participation of Iraqi army units.

But he said he is unwilling to tolerate an insurgent-controlled city. "The status quo," he said, "is unacceptable."

Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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