Kebab Fallujah


FALLUJAH - In 2004, I asked my friend Yasir al-Gabara, an Iraqi Christian, whether pork was cheap here. He said no: very few Iraqi butchers stock it, so it tends to be an expensive and rare treat. Yasir's father was a chef for Saddam, and the proud son knew something about the food business and about butcher's bills. "Beef is more expensive than lamb, and pork is more expensive than beef," he said. Then, with a grin, "but most expensive of all is American contractor."

His joke, which was not funnier at the time than it is now, referred to the then-recent events in Fallujah, the city where I arrived yesterday. Fallujah is well known among Iraqis for its giant, succulent kebabs ("as big as a child's arm," said one exiled Iraqi, salivating visibly). In March 2004, a Fallujah crowd pulled four Americans from their vehicles, killed them, and set them on fire. In photos, their scorched corpses hanging from the city's most prominent bridge resembled whole-roasted quarters of meat. That was the intent. Fallujah belonged at the time to the insurgents, and with that act of savagery they informed the world that the city was insurgent territory, and that anyone who came uninvited would die soon, and end up well-done.

What to make, then, of Fallujah's situation today? The US Marines who retook the city from the insurgents in 2004 abandoned all outposts in Fallujah at the end of 2008, and have even turned over Camp Fallujah, the monstrously large base on the city's outskirts, to Iraqi security forces. All that remains are small outposts in the surrounding areas -- mere rump elements in the countryside that the Marines are, one by one, shuttering and either demilitarizing or relinquishing to Iraqis.

In Camp Bahariya, the smallish base next to the old Camp Fallujah, one already sees evidence that this land will be turned over. The Marines and soldiers here do not fill all the base's space, and a great deal of the base's activity is related to an imminent departure. The laundry service operates below capacity, because many customers have already left. Iraqi officials stop by the base with curious and greedy eyes. Will you be leaving those huts behind? How about that generator?

The story of Anbar's pacification involves a series of lucky and canny plays, particularly the 2007 buying off of Sunni sheikhs, and the overnight turning of the population against Al Qaida. The success of this strategy can be overstated (more on this in a future post), but for now just bask in it. Five years ago the most powerful people in Fallujah were men who literally danced around the sizzling flesh of their slain enemies. Now they resemble aggressive garage-sale aficionados. Even those who think the Marines are leaving prematurely must admit this is a good start.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is

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