Talisman Gate

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Fallujah in Focus

Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

October 21, 2004 Thursday


LENGTH: 1060 words

HEADLINE: Fallujah in Focus

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


In another life, I came very close to bearing the distinction of being the first casualty in a long line of unfortunate souls who have misunderstood the Fallujah of our times. My harebrained plan got in the way of other hare-brained plans and was consequently, and thankfully, torpedoed. But in the process, I had joined a very small group of worldwide experts on the subject of Fallujah who could place it on a map prior to the liberation of Iraq.

No detail was left unstudied in the run-up; the tribes, the subtribes, the town notables, the access routes. Hours were spent pouring over a satellite image of the town trying to establish directions from a safe house to the nearest hospital, just in case. And did my unique expertise enable me to foresee a liberated Fallujah turning into the epicenter of worldwide jihad? Not at all.

It looked very pretty through the zoom lens of a satellite. Flanked from the east by the slow-moving and rain-fed girth of the Euphrates River, Fallujah looked new and shiny with all its well-engineered highways leading west towards nearby Baghdad. A city famous for its distinct fat and long kebabs favored by the truckers working the Amman-Baghdad route. But should you drive around it on one of those shiny highways, the horizontal profile of the city offers a whole different view, capturing the identity of this now notorious town of 300,000 residents: You would see a hundred fat and long minarets dotting its landscape. The City of a Hundred Minarets, that is how the Fallujahns refer to their town and that's what they would put on their license plates as their local slogan if given the chance.

How did this minaret-infested town arrive at a point in history when it can sway a heavily contested American presidential election? As on-the-ground Marine generals and White House micromanagers debate whether to strike before November 2 or after, Fallujah is looming large on President Bush's to-do list. Fallujahns would say that it all started when a dozen or so bystanders were killed by American fire during the summer of 2003.

The Americans would say it all started when Fallujah became a den of the "evildoers," playing host to the likes of Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi and Saddam loyalists. Arab nationalist historians would say that it all started in 1920, when Sheikh Dhari of Fallujah's Zoba' tribe killed Colonel Leachman and sparked the nationwide revolt against British occupation. And they are all right but miss the correct answer: It all started about 200 ago when Fallujah itself started. It all started when that bend east of the Euphrates River was settled and became a calling port for the pirates of the desert, the smugglers.

Smugglers are also fond of Fallujah's kebabs. One is bound to come across this fact when studying the tribal makeup of the Fallujahns. And how can one not be impressed by the exploits of the Albu Issa tribe? Sheep, drugs, firearms, and whatever your black-market heart desires find their way through the shallow canyons that stretch out of the parched deserts of Southwestern Iraq into nowadays Saudi Arabia.

Oh, those Saudis again. That explains it: Fallujah is the toe-hold of the desert onto the terrain of Mesopotamia, the ancient Greek name for the lands that lie between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, otherwise known as the cradle of civilization. And the desert gets to violently rock the cradle through its extended toe, Fallujah. Ideas and habits can get smuggled, too. That is why Saudi arms bearing the insignia of the Saudi Ministry of Interior show up there and that is why some very-Saudi and not-at-all-Iraqi cityscape themes like a Hundred Minarets get lodged, like an oversized splinter, near the very heart of Mesopotamia, the glorious cosmopolitan city of Baghdad.

There is a funny little footnote regarding Fallujah's great hero Sheikh Dari that those Arab historians fail to mention. He was at Leachman's office picking up his gold: a payment made for keeping the trade routes near Baghdad safe from marauding bandits, much like the payments made today by the Americans to tribal chiefs to keep the oil pipelines safe. And very much like today, those same sheikhs would stage attacks in order to raise their service fees on the gullible occupiers. Sheikh Dhari was doing well being both protector and pillager of the trade caravans. Leachman brought him in for a dressing down and in the ensuing quarrel, a shot was fired, the blond "Imperialist Exploiter" was killed, and a hero was born. So goes the story.

And a footnote to the footnote would add that the grandchildren and grandnephews of Fallujah's hero are now lending their intellectual Islamist heft to the insurgency and are in effect the "face" of the rebels. It should also be noted that they spent a considerable amount of time in exile living off the largesse of the Saudi state prior to the liberation of Iraq.

The British also built their most important military base near Fallujah, at Habbaniyah Lake, giving the residents of the nearby city a head start to become Iraq's premier construction contractors. They became the go-to guys to get the job done at the right price, which explains the smooth operation of Iraq's well-financed insurgency. Al Qaeda money is being well-handled by cando professionals. Only question is: How is the money getting in? Oh, those smugglers again.

Most critics now say that failure to bring about a decisive military victory back in last April's confrontation led to the cloning of several Fallujahs in Samarra, Ramadi, Ba'aquba, Beiji, and Latifiyyah, place-names that until recently were quite unknown to the American public. But such blissful ignorance has changed with mounting American casualties from places like Winkelman, Ariz., and Pleasant Mount, Pa., that remain unheard of by the Iraqi public. But does leveling the City of a Hundred Minarets with precision-guided missiles translate into victory among an Iraqi audience?

Maybe it is time for the satellite lens to zoom out and bring the larger image into focus. Maybe it is time to consider the trails leading from Fallujah into the desert and across the Saudi border. Just maybe, cutting off the toe at Fallujah will only leave a bloody mess in Iraq and minimal damage to the main body of the lurking monster somewhere out there in the desert that bred the Wahhabi creed of a Thousand Minarets and Counting.