Former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway said the return of insurgents to Fallujah and Ramadi 'causes Iraqi and U.S. policies to look a little weak' at the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday. (Lance Cpl. Bryan G. Carfrey / Marine Corps)
WASHINGTON — As a three-star general, James Conway commanded Marines during the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004, when coalition forces first entered the city after a mob set upon and killed four American contractors.
Under political pressure, the Marines were ordered to withdraw before they could finish the job of pacifying the city. When American forces returned in November 2004, they encountered hardened fighters who had used the pause to build elaborate defenses and rearm themselves.
The second battle would be among the deadliest street fighting for the Marines since Hue City in 1968, becoming part of Marine Corps lore. Ninety-two Americans died in the fighting to crush the insurgent stronghold. Most of the 1,500 insurgents in the city at the time of the attack died fighting.
Insurgents have returned to Fallujah and nearby Ramadi, another former insurgent stronghold, raising troubling questions for those who fought there.
“We fought and died taking those cities,” Conway said Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation. Conway became the Marine Corps commandant before retiring as a four-star general.
A blunt-talking officer who rarely seeks the spotlight, Conway described his reaction to recent events in stark terms during brief remarks.
“It causes Iraqi and U.S. policies to look a little weak and confused in the wake of how hard we fought to get those cities back in the first place,” Conway said.
The Shiite-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki has been accused by Sunni leaders of refusing to share power equitably. Al-Qaida affiliates in Iraq have attempted to exploit those Sunni-Shiite tensions.
Fighting in neighboring Syria has also strengthened al-Qaida’s position in Iraq.
The frustrations came to a head this month when al-Qaida-affiliated militants stormed through Ramadi and Fallujah, taking control of some areas. Sunni tribal leaders, backed by Iraq’s military, are trying to evict the militants, but the situation remains tenuous.
“In some ways, the al-Qaida grand strategy is vindicated,” Conway said, referring to the organization’s desire to wait out American forces.
Conway said he hopes Sunni tribes, who helped drive al-Qaida from the region in 2006 and 2007, will again help save the region from al-Qaida’s grip.
“The tribes are once again responding,” Conway said.
The upheaval in those iconic cities has weighed heavily on those who fought there, he said.
“Those who lost people, those wounded, I think, are now stripped of a coping mechanism,” Conway said. “If you have a young Marine or soldier sitting with his legs missing, he could at least previously say, ‘Well what we did was the right thing. Iraq is better for it, and we won.’ I’m not sure that same individual sitting in that chair is thinking those things these days. That’s truly sad.”