American Enterprise Online | 5.5.04
By Alan W. Dowd

T.S. Eliot was right. April is the cruelest month, especially for those who are fighting and dying in Iraq.

April claimed 128 Americans and some 1,200 Iraqis, making it the deadliest, bloodiest month of the entire war. We can only hope that most of the Iraqi dead were regime reactionaries and imported insurgents. And we can only hope that the surprising decision by U.S. political and military commanders to pull back from Fallujah will be taken inside the flaring city of 300,000 as a step toward peace and Iraqi sovereignty rather than a sign of weakness or an admission of defeat. 

Elsewhere in Iraq, the actions of just six Americans at a U.S.-run POW camp ruined any chance the United States had at capturing the moral high ground. Their criminality is matched only by their stupidity. After all, they took the very photographs which will lead to their courts-martial and convictions—and which al-Jazeera burned into the minds of some 35 million Arabs at the end of April.

To the south, indicted murderer Moqtada al Sadr is still at large, still trying to whip up Shiite anger in Najaf. Thankfully, it appears Iraq’s Shiites have had their fill of Sadr and his Iranian-backed militia. But with 2,000 U.S. soldiers rimming the city and hundreds of al-Sadr supporters roaming it, all the ingredients for another Fallujah are present in Najaf.

On the home front, April was not kind to President Bush, who was pounded in the press by Bob Woodward’s revelation that (gasp) the president was planning to oust Saddam Hussein as early as the autumn of 2001. Only in Washington can the same people who criticize a president for not having a plan get away with criticizing him for having one. And only in Washington can executing the will of Congress be construed as flouting it. (Recall that Congress authorized the ouster of Saddam in 1998 and again in 2002.)

Of course when things go badly in politics, it costs a few percentage points in a poll; when they go badly on the battlefield, it costs lives. Thankfully, Bush is the kind of man who understands this important distinction. Yet after the strange and apparently unnecessary siege of Fallujah, even ardent supporters of the president’s Iraq policy (myself included) sense that things are adrift. Imagine what a Marine must feel, as he is ordered to retreat after a month of fighting on Fallujah’s fringes with nothing to show for it.

The Marines are being replaced by a ragtag militia of former Republican Guard troops known as the “Fallujah Protection Army.” From whom or what the FPA is protecting Fallujah is not all that clear. Nor is who will command the FPA. Initially, it was Gen. Jassim Mohammed Saleh, a Sunni who once led a brigade of Saddam’s Republican Guard and offered to help the Coalition after the fall of Baghdad. His entreaties were rejected in a bid to de-Baathify the military. In a symbolically potent gesture, Gen. Saleh wore his Saddam-era uniform as he took over Fallujah last weekend. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, the strutting Saleh was replaced by Mohammed Latif, a retired Iraqi general who trained in the UK and opposed Saddam Hussein. Like the Fallujah fallback itself, the Saleh-Latif matter underscores the confused and clumsy course that events seem to have taken.

According to one Marine commander, this is “the Iraqi solution we've all been looking for in this area.” So the month-long firefight in and around Fallujah amounted to a recruiting campaign for Gen. Saleh and/or Gen. Latif?

We were told something different a few days earlier, when Maj. Gen. John F. Sattler, the U.S. Central Command's director of operations, explained that since the Marine force was larger than the Army force that previously patrolled the area west of Baghdad, the Marines would “re-establish or establish law and order throughout the al-AnbarProvince.” According to Gen. Sattler, this “was a conscious decision to go ahead and get into all the major towns out in the western sections of the country.”

Yet April began as it ended in Fallujah—with a mob of holdouts in control of the city. Perhaps it’s fitting that Eliot’s famous five words come from his poem “The Waste Land.”

However, April doesn’t have to be a waste. If the FPA can become a bridge between the Coalition and the Sunni minority, if it can put an Iraqi face on the hard work of stabilization and security, then it will give Iraqis a sense of confidence and ownership. If that happens, the FPA experiment could give the Coalition and the nascent Iraqi government a model for other parts of the country. Recall that northern Iraq is being managed and governed in essentially the same manner, with indigenous, locally respected leaders taking charge and solving problems on their own. (Of course, if the FPA experiment works, the Coalition will have to walk a fine line between a creating a decentralized security force and promoting warlordism.)

Even so, Churchill’s words after Dunkirk pester me. “Wars are not won by evacuations.” The Fallujah pull-back is nothing near the scope of Dunkirk, of course. But what message does this withdrawal send to those Iraqis who stand with us, who want to move forward rather than backward, who fear the dreaded Baath Party, who crave unity? Doesn’t Gen. Saleh represent a victory of tribe over nation, if not a return to the past?

What message does it send to the holdouts of Fallujah? If they conclude they have outlasted or out-willed or out-bled the Americans, if they penetrate and poison the FPA, then April could mark the beginning of a full-blown insurrection rather than the end of an isolated resistance.

In that ugly scenario, there will be many more cruel months to follow April.


PAMELA HESS, “DOD: Fallujah operation part of larger plan,” UPI, April 28, 2004.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Scott Wilson, “U.S. uses Saddam leaders,” Washington Post, May 1, 2004.