Why the Killings in Fallujah Resonate with Americans

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The grisly death of four American civilian security contractors in Fallujah — combined with a roadside bomb that killed five U.S. soldiers nearby — has elicited an unusual degree of hand-wringing back in the U.S. So much so that the White House felt compelled to affirm that the killings would not deter the U.S. from staying the course in Iraq. That the White House felt the need to reiterate that assurance in response to the incident was telling in itself: It may have been the bloodiest day of the past three months, but there have been far bloodier days for the U.S. in the past 11 months of occupation, which have seen some 459 U.S. soldiers killed.

Part of the Fallujah incident's impact came from the fact that most of the media chose to describe the four civilian victims as "contractors," a word that conjured an image of engineers helping to rebuild the shattered country. In reality they were hired guns, former U.S. special forces guys subcontracted by the military to provide security for convoys resupplying a base — testimony, perhaps, to a military personnel shortage in Iraq being addressed through outsourcing.

The real reason for Fallujah's impact, though, came from the gruesome images of four charred bodies dismembered beyond recognition and eventually strung up from a bridge by a euphoric mob. Those pictures revealed a deep-seated hatred of America among a section of Iraq's civilian population. Much was made of the Mogadishu comparison, the famous "Blackhawk Down" incident in which images of locals dancing over the corpse of a U.S. serviceman being dragged through the streets of the Somali capital helped prompt a U.S. withdrawal. And while nobody believes the Fallujah killings will have a similar effect, the echo was clear in the image U.S. personnel under attack from a community that they were ostensibly sent to help.

Until now, Americans have been told that those opposing the U.S. presence in Iraq are either foreign terrorists linked to al-Qaeda, or else Baathist desperadoes trying in vain to restore the old regime. But the Fallujah killings blasted a hole in the administration's standard explanations for ongoing violence in Iraq. The mob that danced around the charred bodies of the four Americans were very ordinary looking young Iraqis, making no effort to hide their identity despite the presence of numerous cameras — not exactly the behavior of Baathists or foreigners plotting furtively in the shadows. But then, Fallujah's insurgents have never had to skulk in the shadows. In February, for example, in the most audacious attack of the entire insurgency, they overran the city's police station in a simultaneous daylight attack on five different targets — showing an ability to operate openly in Fallujah to an extent that would require the consent of a significant portion of the local population. The response of locals interviewed by the media after Wednesday's attacks was even more telling — while many expressed revulsion over the "un-Islamic" dismembering of the corpses, they also saw the killing of the Americans in the first place as justified, a retaliation for last week's raids by Marines in which locals say some 18 Iraqis were killed. Prompted by U.S. commanders, the Muslim clerics of Fallujah used Friday prayers to denounce the desecration of the corpses, but they remained silent on the attacks themselves. Even more worrying, perhaps, was the response of the local Iraqi constabulary, to whom the U.S. is hoping to transfer responsibility for security in much of Iraq. They stayed away from the Wednesday's grotesquerie, with one explaining the decision thus: "Why should we interfere? It's none of our business."

Fallujah has been a tough town for the U.S. military from Day 1 of the occupation, and clashes in which U.S. troops fired on crowds soon after they arrived there last April appear to have led to a cycle of attacks and crackdowns that have turned Fallujah into the cradle of Sunni Arab nationalist resistance to the U.S. presence in Iraq. In the narrative of these insurgents, the U.S. occupation has brought Iraqis a plight analogous with that of the Palestinians — a link underscored in leaflets distributed Thursday in Fallujah proclaiming the killings an answer to Israel's assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

The flip-side of the comparison may be even more keenly felt on the U.S. side right now, as the military contemplates a response to the Fallujah killings. Plainly, the guerrillas who regularly attack U.S. forces there enjoy considerable popular support in the local population. The U.S. had hoped to dampen local hostility by withdrawing from the city itself and handing security control to Iraqi forces, but February's daylight raid on the police station highlighted just how permissive an environment Fallujah is for the insurgents — in the same way that Gaza is for Palestinian gunmen. The logic of occupation, as the Israelis well know, demands that the U.S. retaliate harshly for the Fallujah killings, or else risk sending a message of weakness that would likely inspire further attacks. Hence Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt's promise of an "overwhelming" response to "pacify that city."

That said, there are few good options for retaliation against an unknown enemy that enjoys considerable support in the local population. Israel's experience, and that of the U.S. thus far in Iraq, shows that far from deterring further attacks, collective punishment in an occupation situation tends to inflame hostility and boost support for the insurgents. Indeed, Fallujah residents cite previous U.S. actions as their primary complaint when trying to justify Wednesday's attacks.

The problem of handling Fallujah quickly mushrooms into a larger political dilemma at the heart of the U.S. effort to stabilize Iraq and transfer power to a representative government. British officials have publicly stated what has become conventional wisdom among Coalition officials in Baghdad — that defeating the insurgency requires convincing the Sunni Arabs of their place in the sun under a post-Saddam order. After all, the Sunni Arab minority has always ruled Iraq, before and after the Baathists took power, and support for the insurgency among substantial elements of the community is driven in part by a sense that they will be the big losers in a democratic Iraq. (Sunni Arabs comprise about 15 percent of the population, compared with some 20-25 percent who are Kurds, most of them Sunnis, and an almost two-thirds majority of Arab Shiites.)

The reason that the Shiite clerical leadership is agitating against the new interim constitution and escalating pressure for direct elections to be held quickly is precisely that they fear that the U.S. and its Iraqi allies intend to dilute the power they believe should accrue to their two-thirds majority of the population. They've been kept under the boot-heel of successive Sunni regimes for the past 80 years, and the whole point of their increasingly confrontational strategy is to press for democratic majority rule and not only prevent any expansion of minority influence in the future political order, but actually roll back some of that which has been included in the interim constitution.

Regardless of the state of play militarily around Fallujah, the political arithmetic remains something of a migraine — the steps needed to placate the Sunni base of the insurgency could inflame the already angry Shiites, while the steps needed to accommodate Shiite aspirations are precisely those being resisted by the Sunnis. Fallujah has served up another reminder that honoring the administration's pledge, supported by the Democrats, to "stay the course in Iraq" may yet involve years of committing U.S. lives and treasure to the mission.