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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Outgoing Marine General Faults Fallouja Strategy

James Conway says the decision to attack in April was hasty, as was the move to withdraw.

September 13, 2004|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

CAMP FALLOUJA, Iraq — The outgoing Marine commander of turbulent western Iraq, reflecting Sunday on the fall of Fallouja to insurgent forces, said officers on the ground had disagreed with two key decisions: storming the city in April after the slayings of four U.S. contractors and then pulling back after three days of fierce fighting.

Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, who stepped down Sunday to become deputy director of operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided insight into the controversial U.S. moves in the spring that solidified Fallouja's position as a haven for insurgents and a "no-go" zone for U.S. troops.

What to do about Fallouja is one of the thorniest questions the interim Iraqi government and its U.S.-led allies face.

The order to attack Fallouja and the subsequent command to halt came down the chain of command from Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top officer on the ground at the time, Conway said. The Marines expressed objections but proceeded.

The Marines, who had just taken over responsibility for Fallouja from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, wanted time to work on a strategy they had tried elsewhere, conducting combat operations while reaching out to citizens through development projects and other incentives. They never got the chance.

"We follow our orders. We had our say," Conway said in an interview with several reporters on this sprawling base three miles east of Fallouja. "We understood the rationale, and we saluted smartly and went about the attack.

"We felt like ... we ought to probably let the situation settle before we appeared to be attacking out of revenge," Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said.

The general acknowledged that there was no guarantee that the Marines' strategy would have produced different results in Fallouja, a Sunni Muslim city that has been hostile to the U.S. military presence.

"Would our system have been better?" Conway said. "You'll never know for sure. But at the time we certainly thought so."

It was unclear how strenuously the Marines had argued their point of view. But the attack on Fallouja, which caused hundreds of Iraqi casualties, only exacerbated the hostility, the general said.

"When we got here, we were told by the 82nd that you can go into Fallouja, spend 45 minutes, no more," Conway said. "After the contractor incident, we were told that we had to attack Fallouja. I think we certainly increased the level of animosity that existed, and we're living with that."

The attack, which began April 4, proceeded well, Conway said. "In three days we had taken a third of the city. We were quite happy with the progress.... We thought we were going to be done in two days."

Reports on Arab-language television of heavy civilian casualties inflamed the Arab world and caused consternation in Western capitals. But Conway said those reports were exaggerated -- as were accounts of heavy U.S. casualties.

"Fallouja was not costing us greatly," said Conway, who said six Marines were killed in three days of fighting.

Then came the order to stop advancing. Conway indicated that he was stunned by the move. He suggested that the decision-makers had not quite understood the magnitude of their earlier directive to attack.

"I would simply say that when you order elements of a Marine division to attack a city, that you really need to understand what the consequences are, and not perhaps vacillate in the middle of something like that," Conway said. "Once you commit, you've got to stay committed."

Ultimately, the Marines surrounded the city for three weeks while U.S. officials sought a way to resolve the crisis.

U.S. forces appeared ready to resume the fight in late April, when a deal was suddenly struck to end hostilities.

The Marines announced the formation of an all-Iraqi force, the Fallouja Brigade, to patrol the city and restore order. The force was composed of former officers and soldiers from Saddam Hussein's army, along with many former insurgents.

But the brigade never lived up to expectations and was known to be working with the guerrillas. It was formally disbanded last week.

"The experiment didn't work," Conway said.

Amid fears that many brigade members might join the insurgency, the Marines are now demanding that the force return weapons and other equipment provided by the U.S. Among the items being sought, Conway said, are 800 rifles, two dozen trucks and 40 to 50 radios.

Fallouja will have to be tamed, Conway said, either through political or military means.

A police force composed of officers from outside Fallouja may have to be assembled to keep order in the insular and tribal town, he said. Outsiders, he noted, would not have the extensive tribal allegiances that often trump the rule of law in the city.

"What we have found," Conway said, "is that people who are from Fallouja are simply hard-pressed ... to solve the problems of Fallouja."

Conway's successor, Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, said the problem of Fallouja would have to be addressed, but it was up to the interim Iraqi government to decide what to do. "The status quo in Fallouja cannot stand."

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