Despite a torrent of commentary in the British media to mark the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, there has been little or no reflection on what turned the largely-unopposed invasion in March 2003 into a guerrilla war that began two months later.
A double massacre in the largely Sunni town of Fallujah in central Iraq played a crucial role in galvanising the Sunni insurgency.
According to reports, during the US-led invasion in March, Iraqi troops and the local Ba’ath party apparatus fled from the town, 35 miles west of Baghdad. The town was quiet, and residents were resentful when, on 23 April, a brigade from the US 82nd Airborne moved in, arresting local clerics, setting up roadblocks, and taking over the Al-Ka’at (primary and secondary) school as its headquarters.
On Monday 28 April, there was a demonstration outside the school, demanding that the soldiers leave. US soldiers shot into the crowd, killing 13. The soldiers claimed later to have been fired upon from the crowd and from nearby rooftops, though they sustained no injuries.
Local people insisted the crowd was unarmed, though stones were thrown.
Phil Reeves, from the Independent on Sunday, visited Fallujah a few days later and found no bullet holes on the façade of the school building, or on the wall in front of it. He wrote: ‘The top floors of the houses directly opposite, from where the troops say they were fired on, also appear unmarked. Their upper windows are intact.’ (4 May 2003)
In other words, there was no evidence of the alleged firefight.
Dr Ahmed Ghanim al-Ali of Fallujah hospital told reporters that medical crews were also shot at when they attempted to care for injured people.
On 30 April, local people demonstrated again outside another US base.
Chris Hughes of the Daily Mirror was in the crowd, just six feet away when a young Iraqi boy threw a sandal at a passing US jeep. Hughes witnessed the response: a US marine in the jeep ‘pressed his thumb on the trigger’ of an M2 heavy machine gun, unleashing 20 seconds of automatic fire into ‘a crowd of 1,000 unarmed people’.
Hughes wrote: ‘We heard no warning to disperse and saw no guns or knives among the Iraqis whose religious and tribal leaders kept shouting through loudhailers to remain peaceful.’
After two people had been shot dead and many others injured, Hughes wrote that demonstrators – ‘now apparently insane with anger – ran at the fortress battering its walls with their fists. Many had tears pouring down their faces.’
These events were critical in making Fallujah the most dangerous town in Iraq for US-led forces, and helped to spark the Sunni insurgency.