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A look at the city of Fallujah 20 years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which began 20 years ago this week, one city would become known to Americans as the epicenter of the Iraqi insurgency - Fallujah. Vast areas of the city were leveled in two huge battles between insurgents and U.S. troops. Years later, ISIS would take it over and be driven out in another destructive fight in 2016. Well, NPR's Ruth Sherlock visited there a few days ago and saw a very different city, though memories of the violence remain.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: It is a strange experience driving into Fallujah. All I've heard about this place is the stories of refugees, of the city destroyed. And here we are. And there's cheerful restaurants, shops, these gleaming new buildings, construction projects.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

SHERLOCK: We've arrived at a construction site to interview real estate magnate Sarhan al-Issawi.

Marhaba.

SARHAN AL-ISSAWI: Welcome in Fallujah.

SHERLOCK: Issawi invites us into his office, and through our interpreter, he lays out the scale of the project.

AL-ISSAWI: (Through interpreter) This complex looks like a small city. It contains all services from 24 hours electricity, security, schools and nursery schools and clinics.

SHERLOCK: A brightly colored print of the design of the project hangs on the wall of Issawi's office. It shows 14 apartment buildings, 11 stories each, separated by parks lined with trees.

AL-ISSAWI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: he's putting some $27 million of his own money into the project. I ask him, isn't it a risk to invest so much money in a place with such a recent history of war?

AL-ISSAWI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: "I used to be a soldier, so I don't mind taking risks," he quips. But then he gets serious.

AL-ISSAWI: (Through interpreter) We are full sure that this project will succeed.

SHERLOCK: He says there's a desire among Fallujah residents for new things, for a new way of life. He says many of the apartments have been bought already, even before being finished. One reason for this, he says, is the Iraqi government is offering people cheap mortgages as an incentive. Iraq's Parliament speaker, Mohamed al-Halbousi, is the former governor of Fallujah's Anbar province and also a construction mogul.

AL-ISSAWI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Issawi says Halbousi has helped direct government funds to redevelop the region, starting with the some 120 bridges destroyed in the repeated conflicts.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

SHERLOCK: We leave Issawi's construction site and drive around to get more of a sense of the city now and the violent history here.

Past a furniture shop with gold-painted armchairs and sofas, passing the Happy Land ferris wheel and amusement park.

(CROSSTALK)

SHERLOCK: So you can hear the children playing in the courtyard of this school, al Khaleej school. And back in 2003, this was a key place in the war in Iraq. The first U.S. divisions arrived in Fallujah on the 23 of April 2003. They took over this school. Residents gathered outside the school walls asking the Americans to leave, saying that they wanted to reopen the school for students. The protests grew large, and what happened next is contested. But ultimately, U.S. soldiers opened fire into the crowd, killing 17 people and wounding more than 70. That was the spark for further violence. Two battles ensued, and the conflicts that took place here marked a turning point in the war in Iraq between U.S. troops fighting loyalists of Saddam Hussein and an insurgency against the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The eve of battle.

SHERLOCK: Footage filmed by the BBC in 2004 shows U.S. Marines about to enter Fallujah. The colonel in charge prepares his troops to fight their way into the city on foot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARY BRANDL: The enemy has got a face. He's called Satan, and he's in Fallujah. And we're going to destroy him.

DAFR AL OBEIDI: Hello.

SHERLOCK: We go and meet one of the men who was fighting against the U.S. Dafr al Obeidi welcomes us into his home.

AL OBEIDI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: An imam in the local mosque, he opens with a small prayer before telling us how, in 2004, he organized militias to fight the Americans.

AL OBEIDI: (Through interpreter) We became big groups, and we collect what we have from weapons that we get at that time.

SHERLOCK: During the shelling attacks, during the battles, what did the city sound like? What did it look like?

AL OBEIDI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: He remembers, the shelling was so intense, it was hard to believe any of them would survive. These days, the neighborhood is totally different.

Children are walking home from school unaccompanied, playing in the streets. Two small children are trying to ride an adult bicycle that's far too big for them.

SOUAD MIKKI: I'm an English teacher.

SHERLOCK: We walk into a girl's school and meet English teacher Souad Mikki. She tells me about living under the extremist group ISIS when they took over in 2014 and the war to remove them.

MIKKI: No food, bomb, military - yes, terrible. I feel afraid all the time, especially when my children were so little.

SHERLOCK: But now ISIS has gone, and the city has relative calm. Mikki says her family is finally happier. Sometimes they walk along the city's new promenade on the Euphrates River. Her children are enjoying school, and she is teaching again.

You're teaching the next generation of Iraqis, of people from Fallujah. How do you see now the future for Fallujah?

MIKKI: I hope it will be better. I hope. I hope it will better.

SHERLOCK: Do you feel like it will be better or you don't have trust in the future?

MIKKI: I don't trust the future, but I hope.

SHERLOCK: After years of conflict and instability, it's hard for her to believe that this peace will last. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Fallujah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.
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