The Road to Haditha

How did the heroes of Fallujah come to kill civilians in Haditha? A Vietnam veteran who witnessed the battle of Fallujah says it's too soon to judge the marines—but not the high command
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Then, on March 31, four American contractors were lynched in Fallujah, a city of 300,000 ninety miles southeast of Haditha. Rumsfeld ordered the Marines to attack the city, with the concurrence of Bremer and the military high command. The division commander, Major General James N. Mattis—“Mad Dog” to his admiring grunts—demurred. His strategy, he said, was to repeat the success of Haditha and move in “as soft as fog,” supporting and reinvigorating the demoralized local police.

Washington overrode General Mattis’s objections and the Marines went in. Simultaneously, Bremer decided that coalition forces should move against the dangerous Shiite demagogue Muqtada al-Sadr. American troops were thus engaged on two fronts—against Sunnis west of Baghdad, and against Shiites in Baghdad and to the south. Calls for jihad swept across Anbar province, and insurgents besieged Baghdad, reducing it to a few days of fuel and fresh food.

To finish the fight in Fallujah, Mattis called Battalion 3/4 down from Haditha. “Some of the jundis in my Combined Action Platoon were up for the fight,” Danner recalled, referring to the Iraqis who had joined forces with his platoon. “I told them they had to guard Haditha and that we’d be back for them. They wanted to come with us. We had lived together, fought together.” While the Iraqis in Danner’s CAP volunteered for Fallujah, other Iraqi soldiers around the country mutinied to avoid going there.

Televised images of the house-to-house fighting in Fallujah stirred anger across Iraq. After three weeks of fighting and confused negotiations, just as Mattis was squeezing the insurgents into a corner, Bremer, concerned about a degenerating political situation, persuaded the White House to pull the Marines out of Fallujah. When the order came through, Danner and his men were bewildered. “Fallujah and the Sunnis out west are a sideshow,” a senior Pentagon official told me at the time. “We have to get the Shiites to agree to an interim government in return for early elections.”

Within a month, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other jihadists had taken control of Fallujah. To the south, al-Sadr was cornered, but American officials in Baghdad decided not to arrest him. He slunk away, to emerge later as the leader of the most dangerous Shiite militia in Iraq.

Danner and his men returned to Haditha in early May and resumed living downtown with the police. “Most of the police we lived with were local Sunnis,” Danner said. “A few were tough enough to stand on their own, but 80 percent needed to know we Americans were there with them and would back them up.”

In late summer, Danner’s battalion rotated home, and Battalion 1/8 moved into the Haditha area. Fresh from the States and eager, the new marines continued the joint policing and patrolled vigorously. Word of how Americans had fought in Fallujah had spread, and the insurgents avoided the new marines, targeting instead the Iraqi soldiers.

“Haditha was sinister,” Corporal Timothy Connors, a squad leader in Battalion 1/8, said. “On some blocks, people would wave. But mostly they ignored us, like we weren’t even there. You could sense something was going on, but no one dared shoot at us.” The hearts and minds of the Sunni residents had not been won over, but the insurgents did not challenge the superior force.

In October 2004, one month before the U.S. election, Battalion 1/8 was called away from Haditha to prepare for a second battle of Fallujah. The White House had made a terrible mistake in not letting the Marines finish in April. At the time, Mattis had cited a quote from Napoleon to his field marshal: “If you’re going to take Vienna, then by God, sir, take it!” Delay played to the advantage of the defenders, and Fallujah was now held by 2,000 die-hard jihadists. To take the city, American forces were stripped from other cities across the province. After most residents had left, ten battalions fought block to block in a ferocious urban slugfest. The deeper the marines penetrated into the city, the fewer civilians they encountered and the tougher the fighting became, with jihadists hiding among the 30,000 buildings, waiting to kill the first American to open the door. The 3rd Platoon’s bloody room-to-room fight in the House From Hell was typical of the savagery of Fallujah II.

Many of the jihadists, including leaders such as al- Zarqawi, fled Fallujah before the fight and regrouped in the cities the Americans had vacated. In Haditha, two weeks after Battalion 1/8’s departure, insurgents captured the police station and executed twenty-one policemen, including the police chief. With the police knocked out, the insurgents became the de facto government. The deputy police chief gathered his family and fled to Baghdad.

“He was a good man,” Danner said. “The November battle in Fallujah pulled the rug out from under the police. We left them on their own. Without moral support, they collapsed.”

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