For as long as the country has existed, war has been a regular feature of Iraqi society. For most Iraqis, war has served as a painful reminder that bloodshed and violence are inherent parts of life. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was my first taste of this reality. The outset of the conflict ushered an era of extraordinary turmoil and instability that brought about one of the bloodiest flashpoints in the country’s history: the second battle of Fallujah. I was 10 years old, living in Baghdad with my family, when, on November 7, 2004, my naïveté about the nature of warfare abruptly came to an end.
When I woke up that day, it never crossed my mind that the situation in Fallujah—which was severe before the Americans came in—would become even more dire. In the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion, the city became a known hot spot for insurgent and extremist activity that extended to Baghdad and other neighboring cities. While many Iraqis foresaw a military intervention by coalition forces in Fallujah, very few anticipated a major ground campaign by the Americans. The morning of November 7 foreshadowed that worse was yet to come.
Earlier that same year, coalition forces battled terrorist elements and former members of Iraq’s Baath party after an ambush that killed four American contractors on the outskirts of Fallujah. The campaign ultimately led to a fragile stalemate that lasted until the fall of 2004. By then, Al Qaeda militants had successfully embedded themselves among local insurgents, effectively taking control of large parts of the city. Meanwhile, the Iraqi Security Forces were struggling to contain the spillover of violence into Baghdad, where my family and I were living at the time
Iraq was no stranger to violence, but the fighting during the Battle of Fallujah was far from anything Iraqis had experienced during the initial phases of the 2003 invasion. In the weeks leading up to the battle, footage of ground troops preparing for the campaign were played continuously on television. Images of American-made M1 Abrams and Humvees were plastered all over the front pages of local newspapers. And coalition forces began employing radio broadcasts and airborne leaflets to warn civilians to flee the city. Many people thought the campaign would last only a couple of days given the US military’s superior forces, but it quickly became increasingly clear that the state of affairs in Fallujah was far worse than most people had envisioned. I didn’t fully appreciate the realities of living in a war-torn country until Operation Al-Fajr, or “The Dawn,” officially commenced.
On November 7, I began my day just like any typical child would in Baghdad on a Sunday morning. After waking up, I headed straight towards the kitchen to break bread with my family and drink chai. Iraqi families have a habit of tuning in to the morning news while eating breakfast, so it was no surprise to discover my family huddled around our television screen, with their backs turned away from their half-empty plates. Naturally, I gravitated closer to them, attempting to learn about the latest headline fodder captivating their attention. “What’s going on?” I asked.
To this day, I can’t fully describe how stunning the media coverage of the battle was at the time. Never before had I seen the outbreak of violence publicized in such detail. Footage of American soldiers and Marines patrolling Fallujah’s streets was broadcast in real time: snippets of sporadic gunfire, direct-action raids, and house-to-house fighting that resembled scenes from a Hollywood blockbuster. It was urban warfare in its most destructive form; buildings were destroyed, vehicles were riddled with bullet holes, and human blood tainted the ground. Not even places of worship were spared.
I barely understood the gravity of what I was watching, but it did strike me that this battle was not taking place on some distant battlefield; it was happening in our own backyard, less than 36 miles due west of Baghdad—almost precisely the distance from Washington, DC, to Baltimore, Maryland. I no longer thought of war as an abstract concept. The fighting in Fallujah was brutal, bloody, and very much real.
My family was also struggling to make sense of what was going on. My father had a stern look on his face, and he stood firmly in place with his arms crossed over his chest. He barely spoke a word. My mother was seated right next to him; her hands were clenched into fists and her face looked notably pale. I had never seen them like this before, not even on the eve of the invasion in mid-March the previous year. In retrospect, I can only imagine what was going through their minds. My father tried his best to comfort us in the face of the horror that we were witnessing. “Things will get better, God willing,” was his response to every question I asked about the battle. As for my mother, Fallujah became a tragic metaphor for her beloved Iraq.
Seconds felt like minutes, minutes felt like hours, and hours felt like an eternity. We sat there for the entirety of the day, bearing witness to major developments as the situation became progressively worse. The depravity of war was on full display for the entire world to see. The sight of lifeless bodies lying in rubble, the harrowing sounds of weeping civilians fleeing the city, and images of wounded American and Iraqi service members were vividly shocking. It was a surreal experience that continues to haunt me to this day. Whether you’re a 10-year-old child or a full-grown adult, witnessing a traumatic event can be detrimental in more ways than one. In the case of Fallujah, witnessing multiple traumatic events take place consecutively was emotionally, mentally, and physically draining. I suspect that others who also experienced the horrors of this war feel the same way.
Despite 15 years’ having passed since the battle took place, the fight for Fallujah is far from over. In 2014, ISIS militants captured the city for two years; with aid from their American counterparts, the Iraqi Security Forces liberated the area in what later became known as the third battle of Fallujah. Today, it remains a city ravaged by war and civil conflict. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone could survive such carnage and devastation, but people did. And despite this tragic event, Fallujah became a symbol of Iraq’s resilience that embodies the drive to persevere, overcome, and rebuild.
When people ask me about my upbringing in Iraq, I can’t help but think about Fallujah and the bloodshed that unfolded there. As I get older, I find it increasingly difficult to convey this experience in a way that fully captures the brutality of war. As Iraqis continue to grapple with the political and social fallout of the 2003 invasion, the enduring legacy of the battle has left me pondering the future of what was once a thriving city in the heartland of Iraq.