Part 7 of TIME's Return to Baghdad series.
The trip to Fallujah was an unexpected bonus. The city that became synonymous with the Iraqi insurgency is now mostly placid, but a week before our arrival there had been a couple of car bombings. Also, locals were chafing at the increased presence of the Iraqi army, which is unpopular because most of the soldiers are from other parts of the country. As U.S. soldiers found out to their considerable cost, Fallujis don't much care for outsiders bearing arms.
But a powerful Fallujah chieftain had invited us and promised us protection, so I felt it was relatively safe to have Nate go too. It was important for him to see what many Iraqis (and some American commentators) regard as the birthplace of the muqawama, or resistance.
Fallujah remains ringed by military bases, only they're all manned by Iraqis, not Americans. Even people from nearby towns need papers to enter and the queues at the checkpoints are depressingly long. But once inside, it was surprising how little evidence remains of the two bloody battles U.S. Marines and soldiers fought in 2004. Our host had to point out a few buildings that still bear telltale pockmarks from bullets.
There's a building boom in Fallujah, fueled in large part by compensation paid by the U.S. military and other grants from Washington. The tribal sheik complained that too many construction contracts were going to "bad people," former insurgents who have American blood on their hands. The lesson Fallujah had taught the world, said the sheik, was that "if you fight the Americans long enough, they will eventually pay you lots of money to stop shooting at them." Nate and I agreed this did not bode well for future U.S. military engagements.
The sheik took us to the old bridge over the Euphrates, where in March 2004 the charred bodies of four contractors working for the U.S. Army were hung from iron beams. They had been killed by an angry mob of Fallujis. A sign placed on one of the bodies announced that the city was now "the graveyard of Americans." The grisly images brought Fallujah onto the world stage. "After this, even people in China knew about our city," the sheik said, with obvious pride.
But for most Iraqis, the spark that set Fallujah alight was an incident nearly a year earlier, on April 28, 2003 just weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein. That night, several hundred Fallujis marched to a schoolhouse in the center of the city to protest against the U.S. military presence. There had been similar protests at the city hall and the Baath Party headquarters earlier in the day. American soldiers from the 82nd Airborne were on high alert. As the demonstration approached the school, shots rang out. The soldiers would later say they had been fired upon from the crowd, but Fallujis maintain to this day that the Americans shot first. In all, 17 Iraqis were killed and 70 injured. No American casualty was recorded.
The killing of innocents which is to this day how most Iraqis describe it led to an uproar across the country and was propaganda gold for the nascent muqawama. For years afterward, militants I met cited "what the Americans did at the Fallujah school" as the reason they joined the insurgency.
You have to squint very hard to see a direct line from the shooting at the school to Nate's experiences as a soldier in Iraq or his presence in this country at all. But it's not too fanciful to speculate that the incident was on the minds of some of the insurgents who engaged him in gun battles.
Like the city, the scene of the April 28, 2003, shooting bears few visible scars: the walls that once shielded the U.S. soldiers now feature murals of Mickey and Minnie Mouse. But the school has been renamed the Martyrs after those who died that night. Fallujah will never forget.