Tuesday, June 29, 2004

# Posted 12:17 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

OUR FIRST LOOK INSIDE FALLUJA: Back in junior high, Nir Rosen was a scrawny kid who could draw just about anything if you have him a pen and paper. He bought overpriced designer jeans and paid for them by installment.

Nir never had much respect for authority and once got suspended for a having a haircut that was more cut than hair. Girls liked him. He left our school after 9th grade and I didn't see him more than once or twice in the next seven years.

In the fall of 1999, I was crossing N Street near Dupont Circle when a heavily-muscled man with short hair and a very attractive woman on his arm called out my name. It was Nir. As we caught up over the next few months I found out that he wanted to be an investigative journalist.

Like the kids who made their by driving down to Central America in the 1980s, Nir figured the best way to get things done was to go where the action was and write about it. When I saw first saw him, he was saving up for a trip to Bosnia and Yugoslavia.

In the meantime, he was trying to get through college and making ends meet by working assorted jobs. He had been a bouncer in Georgetown bar for a while, but discovered that it wasn't an enjoyable job unless you really liked hurting people. Most of his colleagues did.

After the invasion of Iraq, Nir shipped out for Baghdad without hesitating. Early on, he got an article published in Time Magazine. Since then, he has freelanced for newspapers including the Pittsburght Post-Gazette and the Asia Times.

But now Nir has hit the big time. He has the lead essay in this week's New Yorker, entitled "Home Rule". Congratulations are in order, since writing about Falluja from the inside takes a lot of courage, in addition to the literary talent expected of all contributors to the New Yorker. A lot of older correspondents won't risk going into the heart of the Sunni Triangle, but I'm guessing that only made it more attractive for Nir.

The story Nir has found is a fascinating one. In the absence of American soldiers, Falluja has reverted to a sort of clerical rule embodied in the person of Sheikh Dhafer al-Obeidi. In spite of having his authority granted by Falluja's most senior Sunni cleric, Dhafer struggles to reign in the foreign jihadis in town while also collaborating with the nominal mayor and the former general appointed by the United States to maintain local security.

The individuals and events that Nir describes demonsrate just how accomplished he has become at integrating himself into foreign cultures. Still, there are important questions that Nir seems to have left unasked. While consulting an impressive cross-section of local authority figures, Nir doesn't give us much sense of what the broader mass of Falluja residents wants for themselves. Does their resistance to the American occupation stem from an ideological commitment to Ba'athism, a religious commitment to Islam or an attachment to the extensive material benefits that Saddam once bestowed on his favorite subjects?

Nir hints at an answer to this quesiton when he writes that
In the first few months after Saddam’s government fell, the city had been fairly stable internally. Religious and tribal leaders had appointed their own civil management council before the Americans arrived. Falluja did not suffer from looting, and government buildings were protected. Tight tribal bonds helped maintain order. Early in the occupation, however, a demonstration protesting the Americans’ takeover of a school building had turned bloody, and a cycle of attacks and retaliation began, with the resistance increasing in sophistication. Local fighters were joined by rogue mujahideen and jihadis from other Arab countries, and, as in the rest of Iraq, the violence and disorder spiralled out of control.
I must admit that I am quite suspicious of the implicit suggestion that it is all the Americans' fault. First of all, American soldiers began to clash with Sunni gunmen in Falluja less than three weeks after the fall of Baghdad. The march that first led to violence was actually a celebration of Saddam's birthday. (I'm not sure if this is the same march that Nir refers to above.)

In other words, the residents of Falluja are not simply anti-American but are (or at least were) actively pro-Saddam. This pro-Saddam sentiment explains why there was no looting: the residents of Falluja didn't hate Saddam and suffer under his rule the way the rest of Iraq. Moreover, how much stability was there in Falluja if protest marches turned violent during the first weeks of the occupation?

All in all, it is somewhat misleading for Nir to describe the intense conflict in Falluja as a product of minor disturbances that "spiralled out of control". A spiral implies a lack of responsibility and a lack of awareness on the parts of its participants. In Falluja, the violence was not part of a spiral, but of the rabid anti-Americanism of the Ba'athist dictatorships most fervent supporters.

After describing Falljua's hybrid political order as "a controversial experiment in Iraqi autonomy", Nir concludes his article by writing that
As the handover to sovereignty began [in late June], the experiment with self-rule in Falluja looked more and more like a desperate measure that had been taken too late.
In other words, the handover itself is simply Falluja writ large: "a desperate measure...taken too late." While there is much to criticize about the handover, Nir's comparison of Falluja with Iraq as a whole is profoundly misguided, if not atypical of American journalists in Iraq.

After all, how can one predict the attitudes and behavior of Shi'ites and Kurds -- let alone most Sunnis -- from the attitudes and behavior of Saddam's most loyal supporters? Journalists' refusal to acknowledge such religious and tribal differences led to their prediction in early April that Moqtada Sadr's Shi'ite insurgents would join with their Sunni counterparts in a national revolt against the American occupation. For most correspondents, Sadr's defeat and Sistani's support for the Americans discredited such predictions. Yet Nir still holds to them quite fast. He writes that
Falluja is one of the most religiously conservative towns in the “Sunni triangle,” but the recent confluence of the Shiite uprising led by Moqtada al-Sadr and the siege of Falluja by the marines had created a curious alliance that transcended religious differences.
In our arguments about the occupation, Nir has insited without reservation that there is an anti-American consensus lurking just below the surface of Iraq's intensely factionalized politics. In his essay in the New Yorker, this article of faith makes itself manifest.

Nonetheless, I think Nir deserves tremendous credit for risking his life -- literally -- to educate the American public about critical events in one of the most important but least well-known parts of Iraq. Regardless of any reservations I have, there is no question that I have learned a lot from Nir's impressive work.
(1) opinions -- Add your opinion

It is very admirable that Nir Rosen has the courage and talent to enter such dangerous areas and befriend the people. it is a real pity that he can not be objective enough to relay the truth to the people. I wonder if this attitude on his part is dictated by the expectations of the publications he wishes to write for.
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