Iraq's Fallujah violence 'heartbreaking' for U.S. veterans

Americans who fought in Iraq and helped secure Fallujah, a hotbed of violence in 2004, are reacting emotionally to the recent violence in a city they helped clear of al-Qaeda insurgents. Some are questioning whether the lives lost were in vain. Others are not.
A gunman holds a rocket-propelled grenade during clashes with Iraqi security forces in Fallujah, Iraq, earlier this month. U.S. troops lost about 100 lives during fighting in Fallujah in 2004 and are watching the current events unfold with mixed emotions. (Associated Press)

Heartbroken. Disappointed. Frustrated. These are emotions that some Americans who fought in Iraq are sharing in the wake of news that the city of Fallujah has fallen into militant hands in recent weeks.

Back in 2004, these U.S. soldiers fought some of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq war in Fallujah. About 100 lives were lost to win its security. Hundreds more soldiers were injured during their tours there.

The city in Anbar province was a stronghold of enemy resistance and a flashpoint for violence. One of the most grotesque examples of it was in March 2004, when four civilian U.S. contractors were ambushed and killed. Their charred bodies were hung from a bridge, the images were broadcast around the world, and the brutality of war hit Americans hard.

In the fall of 2004, U.S. combat troops, alongside Iraqi and coalition forces, launched the second battle of Fallujah. Michael Shupp was the commanding officer in charge of the troops who conducted the ground assaults and who went door-to-door clearing the city of insurgents.

Militants gained control

The mission was successful, and once the fighting subsided, Shupp said he watched with pride as a devastated Fallujah put itself back together.

“I could walk the streets with reporters, go to bakeries, you'd see kids playing, schools were opening -- the city was coming back to life again," Shupp said in an interview.

Times have changed. Today, citizens of Fallujah are again living in fear and fleeing the city. Iraqi security forces, local police and their tribal allies are trying to fend off al-Qaeda-linked fighters and other armed tribal militias who are opposed to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government. By early January the militants had gained control of the city.

For Shupp, it’s hard to watch the city he fought so hard to rebuild fall apart. He’s concerned about the innocent civilians who are getting caught in the middle of a violent power struggle. 

I don’t ever feel like it was all for nothing.- Jessica Lewis, former U.S. army intelligence officer

“Who is protecting them now? They deserve better,” he said, recalling the bonds that were formed between locals and U.S. soldiers. He also feels for the troops he commanded there, some of whom are expressing frustration over the current state of affairs. 

“They gave people a taste of freedom that they didn’t have before," he said. "They gave them safety, they gave them hope. We could see it in their eyes. I was so very proud of our coalition forces, the courage that they displayed going against a very brutal enemy on the battlefields."

Shupp retired from the military in 2008 and now works in Washington, D.C., as a defence industry lobbyist.

Jessica Lewis, another Iraq veteran, is keeping a close eye on what’s happening there and also finds herself reacting with emotion. A member of the U.S. army when she was deployed to northern Iraq in 2007 and 2008, Lewis is now a reservist and works in Washington as a research director at the Institute for the Study of War.

“It is heartbreaking to watch Fallujah descend into this kind of violence again,” she said in an interview.  Like Shupp, Lewis’s thoughts are with the people of Fallujah. The tribes had laid down their arms and turned on al-Qaeda , but now they feel disappointed by the government and are picking up their weapons again, she said.

'We have to be patient' 

“That to me means that the Iraq that we had fought to secure is not what Iraqis in Fallujah believe the government any more to be,” she said.

American troops withdrew from Iraq in late 2011, and since then, not many headlines appeared in the U.S. about what was happening there. The resurgence of violence in Fallujah, however, is getting attention now, and media reports quote soldiers and the families of fallen soldiers who question whether the blood spilled and lives lost were for nothing.

An al-Qaeda fighter stands guard after setting fire to an Iraqi police truck in front of the provincial government headquarters in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, Iraq. (The Associated Press)

Lewis and Shupp don’t share those concerns. “I don’t ever feel like it was all for nothing,” Lewis said.

“It wasn’t,” Shupp responds when asked if it was all in vain. “Some people are mistaken when they say that it was. Good things take time, they don’t happen overnight. We have to patient.”

His heart goes out to the families, he added, he knows the pain they feel over their lost loved ones.

While those Americans who know Iraq best feel the emotional sting of what’s happening there, the political debate goes on about President Barack Obama’s handling of the troop withdrawal and what to do going forward. 

There appears to be a consensus that American boots should not be sent back to Iraqi ground, but there are calls for logistics support, equipment and other assistance. Sen. John McCain even suggested that retired general David Petraeus, who oversaw the war, head back there to quell the unrest.

Lewis said the Iraqi army can only win against al-Qaeda and its sympathizers if it gets Sunni tribes on side, and the U.S. should support those efforts.

“My own reaction is not to lament how it is that we got here,” she said. "It’s to figure out what to do about it."