Getting Out the Vote in Fallujah

How are things these days in Fallujah? – you remember, that hotbed of Iraqi resistance activity that needed to be rooted out by the USMC to clear the way for Iraqi citizens peaceably to go to the polls on 30 January? Oh fine, just fine now, reports the US military, even as it denies access into the city to Red Cross officials, not to mention to returning city-residents. The discerning reader is likely to feel rather less-then-fully-informed about the state of affairs there if this is all he has to go on; where is the alternative press when you need it?

It turns out that Jørgen Steen Nielsen of the Danish commentary newspaper Information has managed to cultivate some good sources in Iraq, so that his recent article (No Election in Fallujah) helps to fill in some of the blanks about what is really going on there one month after the massive US Army-Marine assault.

The main message of Nielsen’s article is that, if that assault was somehow also supposed to enable Fallujah to vote in January’s big election, it failed big-time. Indeed, it’s hard to see how anyone could have realistically expected that it would so succeed, short of the insurgents holed up in the city graciously exiting prior to the American troops’ arrival. (Or perhaps rather “graciously surrendering”; American forces ringing the city prior to the attack naturally tried to keep control over who was entering and leaving.) As a result of all the fighting, there are now at least two big problems in getting anyone to vote there in a few weeks’ time: 1) Most fled the city prior to the assault (the estimate is 200,000 inhabitants did so), and 2) There is little of the city left. Even as I write this, there is still no electricity and still no waste-water treatment. Oh, and maybe also: 3) Things still aren’t pacified in Fallujah, as fighting continues to break out there. As Nielsen relates in his article, last Sunday there were bombing raids on the city by American warplanes – something reported by Al-Jazeera but which American military sources refused to confirm. Now, who here thinks that was just target-practice, against a city you would rather think the US military would be trying to “pretty up” in advance of the return of its rightful residents? And then the New York Times reports today the heaviest surge of fighting in the city for weeks, with three Marines killed.

No, if Fallujans are going to get to vote at all in the election, it will have to be as “honorary” and not “on-the-ground” Fallujans – that is, in the same tradition of the mountain coming to Mohammed, the ballots will just have to reach them wherever they are currently sheltered outside of the city. The comments to Reuters from Lieutenant Colonel Dan Wilson that Nielsen quotes are also revealing: “We have never defined a date for when people can come back to Fallujah. . . . There is a continually great potential for danger in this city. We foresaw that in this phase of operations it could take weeks to get rid of the remaining pockets of resistance.” In other words: No, it actually never was an explicit objective to re-take Fallujah in time in order to enable inhabitants to vote. (In fact, though, that New York Times article noted above also speaks of the beginnings of a return to the city that started today: expected numbers 2,000; actual numbers to show up: about 200.)


The big problem in letting these people return to (what’s left of) their homes is the prospect that local insurgents will try to use that to re-infiltrate the city. Nielsen gives a flavor of the measures the US authorities are taking to try to keep this from happening. These have been reported elsewhere, but the Information article puts them all together into an impressive panorama. First of all, military authorities are making available only five routes into the city, to lessen the number of check-points needed. All adult males are to have their photographs made, their fingerprints taken, and their irises scanned, resulting in an ID card which they are to carry at all times. Private possession of automobiles is prohibited; the car-bomb, after all, has turned out to be the insurgent weapon-of-choice.

The classic line that embodies the American folly in Vietnam is of course “We had to destroy that village in order to save it.” But as the attack on Fallujah shows, we’ve progressed since those times. Now that is more likely to come out along the lines of “We had to destroy that city so that it could vote” – but it still just doesn’t make any sense.

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