FALLUJAH, Iraq -- The outgoing commander of US Marines in Iraq said yesterday that he disagreed with the order that sent his troops to invade the restive city of Fallujah in early April and with the decision to halt the attack days later, when he believed they were within days of victory.
Lieutenant General James T. Conway said the abortive assault, launched in response to the brutal killing of four US civilian contractors by a mob in Fallujah on March 31, spiked tensions in the area and helped make the region more hostile to US forces today than when his forces took charge of the area six months ago.
The attack on the contractors came just four days after the First Marine Expeditionary Force took over the sprawling area that includes Fallujah from the Army's 82d Airborne Division. The ensuing assault scuttled Marine plans to focus on winning hearts and minds by cooperating closely with locals on reconstruction, and it kicked off a new round of destabilizing violence that is still plaguing the country.
"We felt like we had a method that we wanted to apply to Fallujah, that we ought to probably let the situation settle before we appeared to be attacking out of revenge," Conway told reporters yesterday at Camp Fallujah, the Marine base on the city's outskirts.
Instead, under orders from superiors, Marines launched a major offensive into the city, only to receive new orders to pause after three days of intense fighting and cordon off the city in what became a three-week standoff. Television images of destruction, civilian casualties, and refugees fleeing the city sparked outrage among Iraqis. The crisis ended only when Marines left the city and handed control to the Fallujah Brigades, a group of former Iraqi army officers from the area, some with ties to insurgents. That experiment failed, Conway said. The Fallujah Brigade never took effective action -- some of its members cooperated with insurgent attacks, Iraqi and US officials say -- and was dismantled this month. Fallujah remains in chaos, with rival insurgent groups using the city as a base.
"I wonder how this might have developed if we had been able to continue the way we were," Conway said. "We follow our orders. We had our say, and we understood the rationale. We saluted smartly and went about the attack." Asked for his personal feelings about the order to stop the attack midway, Conway said, "I would simply say that when you order elements of a Marine division to attack a city, you really need to understand the consequences of that, and not, perhaps, vacillate in the middle of that. Once you commit to do that, you have to stay committed." He added that at the time the Marines were ordered to halt their offensive, "We thought we were going to be done in a few days." Conway's remarks were the strongest yet from Marines who have said privately for months that they were frustrated at the stop-and-go assault, which they believe shattered their rapport with Iraqis, yet brought no resolution and left the Marines appearing indecisive. Conway gave his assessment as his successor, Lieutenant General John F. Sattler, and the interim Iraqi government face much the same dilemma in Fallujah that Conway's Marines faced six months ago: leave the city in the hands of insurgents or face a bloody showdown that could incense Iraqis and international opinion.
Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has vowed in recent days to relaunch an attack on Fallujah if its people cannot oust the insurgents and rejoin Iraq's political process. But the timing of an assault must strike a delicate balance, Marine commanders said. It should not happen until an Iraqi security force is ready to lead the attack and then maintain control inside the city. But that could take months, and every day the assault is delayed insurgents have more time to dig in.
Conway has led the First Marine Expeditionary Force for two years and until yesterday commanded 42,000 troops in Iraq who patrolled some of Iraq's most dangerous areas: Al Anbar province, which includes Fallujah, Ramadi, and much of the restive Sunni Triangle; Najaf, where they fought a three week battle with Moqtada al-Sadr's militia; and the towns of Mahmoudiya and Latifiya, insurgent strongholds south of Baghdad. Conway's criticisms hold weight because of his track record; he was decorated yesterday for leading Marines in the invasion of Iraq last year, the longest and fastest Marine advance in history. He is moving on to the Pentagon post of deputy director of operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
He stopped short of criticizing political leadership, saying of the disputed orders, "I don't know how high it went." He said he received the orders from Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, then commander of US forces in Iraq.
Marines, too, have faced criticism for how they handled the region; whether their stated policy of increased activity to win over Iraqis combined with more aggressive raids helped spark April's violence has been hotly debated.
Before they arrived, Army troops faced strong resistance in Fallujah. But they could visit the town hall and police station, and the Iraqi police at least nominally functioned inside the city. On March 24, as Marines visited the town hall along with the outgoing Army commanders, they were attacked from three sides and had to fight their way out of the city. Soon after Marines took control on March 27, they launched an aggressive raid inside the city, sparking skirmishes with several casualties. The contractors were killed the next week. During the fighting in April, insurgents routed Iraqi National Guard and police forces. After the Fallujah Brigade took over, armed groups have run rampant in the city, including some trying to impose Islamic law and others profiting from crime. Marines argue the pullout had one benefit: removing the rallying cry that united those disparate groups.
Now, troops may face one more armed foe: Many of the Fallujah Brigades are expected to support the insurgency rather than join Iraqi police and army units as Allawi has urged them to do. The Marines gave the brigade's 2,000 soldiers 800 rifles, 27 trucks, and 50 radios, Conway said, adding that they have been asked to turn them in within the week.
Sattler, the director of operations for US Central Command, which oversees Iraqi operations, assumed command of Conway's troops in a formal ceremony yesterday morning at Camp Fallujah.
Three mortar barrages struck the camp before the ceremony, the fiercest attack in weeks, Marines said. One round struck within 100 yards of the building where the ceremony was held.