CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq - The departing Marine commander of turbulent western Iraq, reflecting yesterday on the fall of Fallujah to insurgent forces, said officers on the ground disagreed with two key decisions: Storming the city in April after the slayings of four U.S. contractors and pulling back after three days of fierce fighting.
Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, who stepped down yesterday to become deputy director of operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided fresh insight into the controversial U.S. moves last spring that helped solidify Fallujah's position as a sanctuary for insurgents and a no-go zone for U.S. troops.
What to do about Fallujah is one of the thorniest questions now facing the interim Iraqi government and its U.S. allies.
The order to attack Fallujah and the subsequent command to cease advancing into the city came down from the chain of command and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. officer on the ground at the time, Conway said. The Marines expressed objections but proceeded.
"We follow our orders. We had our say," Conway said in an interview with several reporters after the change of command ceremony on this sprawling base three miles east of Fallujah. "We understood the rationale, and we saluted smartly and went about the attack."
Instead of attacking, the Marines - who had just taken over responsibility for Fallujah from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division - wanted time to work on their strategy of conducting combat operations while reaching out to citizens through development projects and other incentives. In Fallujah, the Marines never got a chance.
The general acknowledged that there was no proof that the Marines' preferred approach would have produced different results in Fallujah, a Sunni Muslim city that has been largely hostile to the U.S. presence since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
"Would our system have been better?" Conway said. "Would we have been able to bring over the people of Fallujah with our methods? You'll never know for sure. But at the time we certainly thought so."
It was unclear how strenuously the Marines argued their point of view. But the attack on Fallujah, which caused hundreds of Iraqi casualties, only exacerbated the hostility, the general said.
"When we got here, we were told by the 82nd that you can go into Fallujah, spend 45 minutes, no more," Conway said. "After the contractor incident, we were told that we had to attack Fallujah. I think we certainly increased the level of animosity that existed, and we're living with that."
Reports of heavy civilian casualties in Fallujah on Arab-language television inflamed the Arab world and caused consternation in Western capitals.
Then came the order to stop advancing. Conway indicated that he was stunned by the move. He suggested that the decision makers above his level had not quite understood the magnitude of their earlier directive to attack.
Ultimately, the Marines surrounded the city for three weeks while U.S. officials sought a way to resolve the crisis.
Just as a second attack appeared imminent, a sudden deal was struck to end hostilities.
The Marines announced the formation of an all-Iraqi force, the Fallujah Brigade, charged with patrolling the city and restoring order.
But the brigade never lived up to expectations and was known to be working closely with the rebels. The brigade was formally disbanded last week.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.