by Carlo Butalid
(this article was published in the 20 December 2004 issue of Newsbreak magazine)
In 244 AD, the Romans suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the emergent Persian Sassanid empire, under their leader Shapur I. The Roman emperor Gordian III died during this battle, marking the start of the series of Roman defeats until the empire’s final fall two centuries later.
This battle was held, of all places, just about 10 kilometers to the west of the present Iraqi city of Fallujah.
Fallujah, and the region around it, has always been strategic in terms of the economy, politics, military, and culture of the whole Mesopotamian region, which roughly corresponds to the borders of present-day Iraq.
Mesopotamia literally means the land between two rivers, the Euphrates in the west and the Tigris in the East. Both rivers start off in the eastern mountains of Turkey, hundreds of kilometers from each other, and both have many tributaries. The Euphrates and Tigris rivers are closest to each other roughly in the region between Baghdad and Fallujah. This fact has helped make this region of prime importance to the whole country.
Historically, invaders going east to west or west to east across Mesopotamia have always done so by going through the Fallujah-Baghdad corridor. The reason is obvious: this is the only route through which an invading army only needs to cross two rivers to get across. Any other route would require the invaders to cross one or more tributaries of either the Euphrates or the Tigris rivers.
Fallujah was also important for land travel. Caravan routes coming through the Arabian desert ended at Fallujah. And the road system today also makes Fallujah important. From Baghdad, there is only one road going west, and this goes straight through Fallujah. After crossing Fallujah, the road crosses the Euphrates and follows its west bank until it reaches the city of Al Ramadi. After Ramadi, the road continues northwest, eventually reaching Damascus, Syria. Another road from Ramadi goes west across the desert, until it reaches Amman, Jordan. There are no other roads west from Baghdad. A detour through southern Turkey is much, much longer and rougher.
Even after the transfer of Iraq’s seat of power from the area around Fallujah to Baghdad in the eighth century AD, Fallujah remained an important river and road hub. Its function as an important river port meant that its economic fortunes paralleled that of Mesopotamia as a whole. If the country prospered, so did Fallujah. And due to its central position in communications and trade, Fallujah became important as a cultural and religious hub as well.
All this put Fallujah in a position where it could challenge Baghdad’s rule. There was no way a ruler could hurt the city economically without hurting the whole country’s economy. And the Fallujans did resist the Ottoman Turks, the British, and even Saddam Hussein.
In the mid 1980s, the Muslim clerics of Fallujah defied Saddam’s order that all sermons at mosques should start and end by praising him. The dictator responded by arresting and executing many clerics, and by cutting off state subsidies to Fallujah’s religious schools. The Fallujans remained defiant, and instead of surrendering to Saddam, they raised money from other Arab countries to compensate for the loss of state financing.
When the US and Britain invaded Iraq in 2003, Fallujah was definitely anti-Saddam, and its people cautiously welcomed the foreign armies. While many other cities witnessed widespread looting during the days immediately after Saddam’s fall, Fallujah saw none of this.
But the Americans squandered their goodwill among Fallujans soon after the conquest. In April last year, when Fallujans protested the presence of a US military detachment at a school, American troops responded by shooting at the crowd, killing 20. The Americans made things worse by refusing to apologize for this excessive use of force and claiming that the Fallujans shot first (an incredible claim, since there were no US casualties).
Now, the Americans, clueless about the historical or geographical significance of Fallujah, claim that they have defeated the Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah.
The British should know how hollow such a victory could be.
In 1920, the British went to war with the Iraqis to retaliate for the killing of their own, Lt. Col. Gerald Leachman, in Fallujah. That war cost the lives of 10,000 Iraqi people and 1,000 British nationals. Although the British won that particular campaign, this incident marked the beginning of the end of the British presence in the Middle East.
Fallujah, a small town (population: less than 250,000; area is a little more than 10 square kilometers) on the east bank of the Euphrates, has been instrumental in defeating the Roman and British empires. Will America be next?