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What Lies Behind Fallujah Rising?

The rebel town’s location, its recent history and tightly-knit community all conspire to make it the ideal breeding ground for insurgency.
By Ali al-Yasi

With the United State elections out of the way and George Bush now assured a second term in office, Iraqis are bracing themselves for the start of an all-out offensive on the troubled town of Fallujah, west of Baghdad.


US-led Coalition forces have taken up positions around the city, helicopters have increased flights over the area and tanks are blocking the Baghdad-Jordan motorway that runs through the town.


Any attack is expected to coincide with a large-scale military operation to take the nearby town of Ramadi, while the Iraq-Syria border will be closed to stop foreign militants crossing in to join the fighting.


But what is it that has turned Fallujah, more than any other Iraq town, into a hotbed of resistance?


While the town has dominated international news coverage of Iraq, official estimates put the total population of Fallujah and its suburbs at just 300,000.


Most people in this tight-knit community are still descended from seven local tribes – the Zawbaa, al-Jmailat, al-Falahat, Albu Alwan, Albu Muhammed, Albu Nimir, and Albu Kalb.


Despite the previous regime’s divide-and-rule policy of favouring some tribes over others, the community here has remained united.


In a town which provided many recruits for Saddam Hussein’s military, intelligence and security services, the end of his rule and the disbanding of his forces deprived substantial numbers of residents of both jobs and the benefits they had enjoyed as staunch Baath party supporters.


In the confusion that followed the end of the war, religious leaders in this predominantly Sunni Arab town moved to consolidate their power base by building on fears that, having lost the protection of the Baath party, Sunnis could soon find themselves marginalised as the country’s Shia majority consolidated political power.


The idea of country-wide elections which would lead to a mainly Shia government – and also give the Kurds of northern Iraq greater influence in the country’s decision making process – are seen as a serious threat.


Many in Fallujah adhere to the Salafi strand of Sunni Islam, and hold extreme views about Shias whom they see as members of a blasphemous sect.


Imams from Fallujah’s mosques have repeatedly echoed the calls from the Muslim Clerics’ Board, the Sunni Consultancy Council and the Board of Edicts to boycott the proposed January ballot.


In contrast to the Shia areas, where religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has stressed the need for people to cast their vote, going to the ballot boxes in this part of Iraq would be regarded as tantamount to treason.


On top of the religious differences, many people in the town believe they would face a bleak future if Iraq moves to federalism, a structure that is envisaged in the Transitional Administrative Law, although no one is yet clear what it will look like. The general perception is that economic benefits will be channelled to the north and south of the country, as well as to oil-rich or agricultural areas, leaving resource-poor Fallujah neglected.


The insurgents, including Jordanian militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, have played strongly on locals’ fears of an uncertain future to feed the ongoing sectarian and anti-coalition violence.


As well as a disaffected population, good road links to Syria and Jordan, and close proximity to Baghdad, Fallujah offers yet another attraction for insurgent leaders. With so many of people employed in the old Baath security forces, and a significant number occupying high-ranking posts in the military, the town has highly trained militia forces on tap.


With all these factors militating in favour of a defiant, uncompromising stance, it should come as little surprise that the town’s religious and tribal leaders have no plans to surrender to Coalition forces or the Iraqi government. Negotiations between the interim Iraqi government and Fallujah’s tribal sheikhs reached a predictable dead end.


Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has long held that a military assault is the only way to assert control over the town. Now President Ghazi al-Yawer, previously a staunch opponent of an attack, has said he would support a decision to take the area by force.


With the use of military force now seeming the only way to neutralise the insurgents holed up in the town, many feel the countdown to a major offensive has already begun.


US Marines and Iraqi National Guards, fired up by last month’s killing of 44 army recruits in the east of Iraq and the numerous attacks carried out on US troops, are just waiting to get the green light.


Ali al-Yasi is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad.


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