Five years ago, George Bush, the US president, announced aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier that the war in Iraq was a “mission accomplished”.
But events in the western Anbar province had already been spiralling out of control and were threatening the volatile security situation in occupied Iraq.
On April 28, 2003, US soldiers occupying the Al-Qaid school in Falluja opened fire on dozens of demonstrators who had been protesting the use of the premises as a forward base for the US 82nd Airborne Division.
Residents of Falluja had also been protesting against the use of night vision goggles, which they mistakenly believed were used by US soldiers to spy on their wives and daughters.
Seventeen Iraqis were killed and scores wounded.
The US military said its soldiers had responded properly after coming under “effective fire” from some 25 armed men hiding within the Iraqi crowds outside the school and atop adjacent buildings.
Human Rights Watch, however, disputed the military’s accounts citing ballistic evidence and called for an independent investigation. Five years later, no such study has been conducted.
Though attacks on US forces continued in Iraq despite the fall of Baghdad, the events in Falluja in late April 2003 helped fuel anger throughout the country and led to a 2004 siege of the city.
Dahr Jamail was one of a handful of western journalists in Falluja during the April 2004 siege.
He writes here of the trials and tribulations Falluja faces as it rebuilds after a war-ravaged past:
Falluja, a crossroads city located 60km west of Baghdad along the main highway to Jordan, remains in tatters nearly four years after a US military siege labelled “Operation Phantom Fury”.
Often omitted from the discourse about Falluja is that the city did not initially oppose the US occupation in 2003. Tribal leaders were quick to cooperate and even appointed a liaison to work with the US occupation authorities.
But because of events outside the Al-Qaid school in April 2003, the US military lost control of the city within a year, setting the scene for the gruesome killing of four Blackwater security contractors on March 31, 2004.
It is this event which triggered the first US assault in April 2004, which would kill – according to doctors I spoke with later at Falluja General Hospital – 736 Iraqis. According to medical staff, at least 60 per cent of the fatalities were civilians.
I witnessed some of this destruction myself when I was in Falluja during the April 2004 siege.
When I first entered Falluja, home to some 300,000 people, on April 10, 2004 – one day after a ceasefire had been reached – I watched in surprise as a US F-16 jets bombed a district in the city.
I was travelling with an aid convoy bringing food and medical supplies to residents of the city which had been under siege for a few days. We avoided using the US-controlled highway and entered the city through farm roads controlled by the local fighters.
Much of my reporting was done from a makeshift medical clinic in the middle of the city.
Over a period of two days, I watched as women, children, and a few men were brought into the clinic by family members.
They came from different parts of the city, and at different times, and they all claimed the same thing – that they had been shot at by American snipers.
One woman and small child had been shot in the neck; doctors frantically worked on her amongst her muffled moaning.
The small child, his eyes staring into space, continually vomited as the doctors raced to save his life.
After 30 minutes, it appeared as though neither of them would survive.
Sitting outside the clinic was an ambulance riddled with bullet holes. The driver, whose head had been grazed by one of the shots, refused to go collect any more dead and wounded.
Several of the doctors I spoke with accused US forces of targeting them when they had attempted to venture into the city to provide medical assistance.
The “clinic” lacked electricity often, as the city’s water and power had long since been cut by the US military, and doctors had been working for days on end to treat the wounded.
Buried in fields
As night fell, doctors often worked with flashlights and lighters held up by family members of the fallen. The buzz of unmanned military drones above was constant as gunfire cracked in the distance.
When I ventured to other neighbourhoods of the city after the fighting stopped, I visited a football field which had been turned into a makeshift cemetery.
Fearing sniper fire, many Fallujans had buried the bodies of loved ones in gardens; the corpses were dug up later and transferred to these new graves.
The ceasefire agreement stipulated that the US military would remain outside Falluja, a condition which relieved Iraqi police and army personnel.
In April 2004, Falluja remained the only unoccupied city in Iraq until November of the same year, when the second siege was launched, days after the US presidential election was won by George Bush.
The November 2004 siege ended with most of Falluja destroyed and several thousand killed. There has never been a detailed death toll.
Falluja in 2008
While promises of reconstruction were made prior to the siege, Falluja today continues to struggle to regain a sense of normalcy. Residents must plan their lives around curfews and vehicle bans, which are common.
Fallujans must also navigate through biometric checkpoints where they are fingerprinted, undergo body searches, and have their retinas scanned in order to obtain bar-coded ID’s to access their homes.
Though acts of violence have severely dropped Fallujans see their city as “a big jail”. They complain that the checkpoints have effectively divided the city into small cantons.
Beyond the security restrictions, the city is but a skeleton of its former glory. Street fighting, aerial bombardment, suicide bomb attacks and the sieges have left much of the infrastructure destroyed.
Locals estimate that 70 per cent of the city was heavily damaged or destroyed during the 2004 sieges. Very little of that has been reconstructed. Many streets were houses once stood look like they have been paved over, with rubble and concrete debris the only evidence that people ever lived there.
Some homes have long since been abandoned, their exteriors pock-marked by shell and bullet holes.
Trade has improved as Chinese and Turkish goods flood the local markets. Towns such as Al-Qaim along the border with Syria now act as commercial hubs through which goods are imported into Falluja.
But unemployment is rampant, giving local young men few opportunities.
Tense security situation
Many young men have been hired through their tribal affiliations to work with the popular Awakening Council.
While this has contributed to a drop in attacks against US forces, it has not limited internal fighting and rivalry among many former insurgent groups.
In 2006, Sunni groups fought each other as precursor groups to the Awakening Council tried to wrest control of western Iraq from militias allied with al-Qaeda.
US commanders have credited the Awakening Councils with helping to secure the country, but for some Fallujans such entities have led to further divisions in the city.
They say the security situation remains tense, largely in part to various tribal chiefs and Awakening group commanders engaged in ongoing power struggles and turf wars both in Falluja and other areas of Iraq’s volatile western al-Anbar province.
Disputes between the Iraqi Islamic Party and Awakening groups also create security tensions in the city nowadays.
Marine Major General Walter E. Gaskin of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force who handed security of Falluja over to Iraqi forces in March 2008, told reporters that the fractured nature of a myriad of tribal sheikhs in the area impacted the security situation in Falluja heavily.
“They are homogeneous in dialect, but they are independent in opinion and politics,” he told reporters at a news conference at a US base near Falluja.
(I highly recommend reading the piece on the Al-Jazeera website, as it includes photos and video)