Bush's Bloody Flip-Flop
By Robert Parry
September 14, 2004
A flip-flop by George W. Bush worsened the military-political debacle in Fallujah last April when the Bush administration overruled the Marine commanding general twice, first ordering him to undertake a retaliatory assault against the rebellious Iraqi city and then abruptly reversing direction three days later.
Marine Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, who commanded U.S. forces in western Iraq, told reporters that he opposed the decision to attack Fallujah in April and then after committing Marines to the battle he objected to the follow-up order to cease offensive operations and pull back, a decision that effectively ceded the city to insurgents as a no-go zone for American troops.
We follow our orders, Conway said in the interview on Sept. 12 after relinquishing his command.
The order to attack Fallujah in early April followed tough talk in Washington about punishing those responsible for the gruesome deaths of four armed U.S. contractors whose vehicles were ambushed in Fallujah on March 31.
Senior U.S. officials in Iraq say the order overruling the Marine commander, who favored a more measured response, originated from Bush's White House, the Washington Post reported. Conway said he and other Marine officers had a more deliberative plan for bringing the city under control.
We felt 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 said in the interview. Conway said he favored using targeted operations against armed enemy forces while collaborating with local officials to rebuild the city and ease tensions.
Instead, Bush administration officials in Washington second-guessed the commander and demanded a full-scale assault on Fallujah. We had our say, and we understood the rationale, and we saluted smartly, and we went about the attack, Conway said.
The assault proved disastrous, however. Six Marines were killed along with hundreds of people in Fallujah, many of them civilians who died under a U.S. bombardment including 500-pound bombs dropped on the city and cannon fire that raked the city's streets. There were so many dead that the soccer field was turned into a mass grave.
The Fallujah attack enflamed anti-Americanism throughout the Middle East and made the citys name a rallying cry for Iraqi insurgents. Though Fallujah is located in the Sunni Triangle, rival Shiite communities to the south joined in collecting and delivering relief supplies.
The civilian deaths in Fallujah also brought a new round of international condemnation of the United States for allegedly engaging in a collective punishment of a population, a violation of international law. The negative publicity appears to have given Bushs White House second thoughts.
Three days into the attack, the Marines were suddenly ordered to cease offensive operations and to negotiate a withdrawal of U.S. forces. Gen. Conway said he opposed this reversal but was overruled again.
When you order elements of a Marine division to attack a city, you really need to understand what the consequences of that are going to be and not perhaps vacillate in the middle of something like that, Conway said. Once you commit, you got to stay committed. [Washington Post, Sept. 13, 2004]
The embarrassment of the Marines' sudden withdrawal was covered by a public relations fig leaf called the Fallujah Brigade, a new Iraqi force that was supposed to police the city. It was touted as a model for how the Bush administration planned to pacify other rebellious cities in Iraq.
But the Fallujah Brigade turned out to be another failure. The U.S. military later discovered that the brigade was collaborating with the insurgents, even supplying them with U.S. weapons and joining in attacks on U.S. forces outside the city. The Fallujah Brigade was quietly disbanded in early September.
In April, however, Bushs bloody flip-flopping escaped much critical attention. At a nationally televised news conference on April 13, Bush tried to spin the situation as a success.
In Fallujah, coalition forces have suspended offensive operations, allowing members of the Iraqi Governing Council and local leaders to work on the restoration of central authority in that city, Bush said. These leaders are communicating with the insurgents to ensure an orderly turnover of that city to Iraqi forces, so that the resumption of military action does not become necessary. Theyre also insisting that those who killed and mutilated four American contract workers be handed over for trial and punishment.
Two weeks later on April 28, Bush declared that our military commanders will take whatever action is necessary to secure Fallujah on behalf of the Iraqi people. Bush added, There are pockets of resistance and our military along with Iraqis will make sure its secure. Neither promise has been fulfilled. The killers of the four contractors have not been caught nor has Fallujah been secured by pro-U.S. forces.
Four months after the April assault, Fallujah has been joined by a growing number of Iraqi cities effectively under the control of insurgents, where American ground forces stay away and U.S. attacks are largely limited to air operations. Inside those cities, Iraqi officials have been executed for collaborating with U.S. forces.
While a military-political catastrophe on one level, the aborted assault on Fallujah also represents another case of politicians in the White House second-guessing military commanders on the ground, a violation of a repeated Bush campaign pledge from Election 2000 that he would not micromanage military operations.
Overruling military judgments occurred, too, in the days before the Iraq invasion when Bushs civilian advisers denigrated warnings from uniformed officers that a larger U.S. force would be needed for both the invasion and the occupation. Army Gen. Eric Shinseki foresaw the need for several hundred thousand soldiers.
Instead, Bushs civilian officials predicted flower-strewn welcomes for U.S. troops and trimming their numbers back to 30,000 within months. Since the invasion, U.S. troop levels of about 135,000 have proven inadequate to maintain security around the California-sized country where more than 1,000 American soldiers have died.
Fallujah was another example of Bush and his civilian advisers thinking they knew better than the military commanders on the ground. By overruling the Marine commander in Fallujah twice in April, Bush managed to make the United States look first reckless and then feckless, as U.S. Marines and Iraqi civilians died in a hasty assault that was then abruptly abandoned.
Still, Bush continues to succeed in presenting his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, as a flip-flopper who lacks the requisite decisiveness to be commander-in-chief.
Robert Parry's new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, is now available for purchase from the publisher by going to Consortiumnews.com's Home Page and clicking on the new book.
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