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Al-Falluja is a town of about 300,000 residents located some sixty kilometers west of Baghdad. The town forms part of the Sunni Muslim center of the country, one of the main areas of popular support for former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, himself a Sunni Muslim from Tikrit.

Al-Falluja had generally benefited economically under the previous government. Local residents told Human Rights Watch that many of them had worked for the military, police or intelligence. However, Human Rights Watch did not find overwhelming sympathy for Saddam Hussein following the collapse of his government. Many al-Falluja residents told Human Rights Watch that they considered themselves victims and opponents of his repressive rule.

To this one must add the tense atmosphere in the town, which combines strong Islamic codes of honor and hospitality, as well as strong social conservatism. Al-Falluja is known as the "city of mosques."

From the arrival of U.S. troops, residents told Human Rights Watch, they viewed the soldiers as disrespectful of their values and religion. Poor communication between the U.S. Army and al-Falluja's residents may have been an important underlying reason for the escalation to violence. What the U.S. military saw as attempts to assist the town were sometimes misunderstood or poorly communicated.

Al-Falluja was bombed by coalition forces during the war, but was spared ground fighting. The Iraqi military and fedayeen2 in and around town melted away once Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul fell on April 9-11, residents in al-Falluja and the U.S. military said. U.S. Special Forces patrolled the region and then, on April 23, soldiers from the 82nd Airborne's 2nd Brigade rolled in. "We came in to show presence just so the average citizen would feel safe," said Col. Arnold Bray, commander of the troops with responsibility for the region. "We were given the authority to defend people and infrastructure, and obviously ourselves."3

Col. Bray also told Human Rights Watch that soldiers of the 82nd Airborne in Iraq received training for what he called their "peacekeeping role" after combat. "We rehearsed for months preparing for no-fight," he said.4

By the time U.S. forces arrived, tribal and religious leaders in al-Falluja had already selected a Civil Management Council, including a city manager and mayor. The quickly-formed local government was having success in minimizing the looting and other crimes rampant in other parts of Iraq. Different tribes5 took responsibility for the city's assets, such as banks and government offices. In one noted case, the tribe responsible for al-Falluja's hospital quickly organized a gang of armed men to protect the grounds from an imminent attack. Local imams urged the public to respect law and order. The strategy worked, in part due to cohesive family ties among the population. Al-Falluja showed no signs of the looting and destruction visible, for example, in Baghdad.

The 1st Battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade, five companies comprising approximately 700 soldiers, took responsibility for security in al-Falluja, setting up a command post at the local headquarters of the Ba`th Party on al-Falluja's main street. Approximately 150 soldiers from the Charlie Company occupied the al-Qa'id primary school, a few hundred yards south of the main road.6

From the beginning, the local community was agitated and concerned. "We just wanted them to be far from the city's center because of the conservative attitude of our people," said al-Falluja's new mayor, Taha Badawi Hamid al-`Alawani.7

According to the commander of the 1st Battalion, Lt. Col. Eric Nantz, his forces entered the school in order to be closer to the community. "The only reason we occupied the school is [that] we were trying to find a location where we could communicate with the people," he said.8 He did not indicate that he saw any tension between his community relations objective and the possible unfavorable response of townspeople to the fact that troops were occupying a school.

Lt. Col. Nantz also explained that the battalion under his command had discovered schools full of arms in other cities of Iraq, especially al-Samawa, where the 82nd Airborne had faced Iraqi resistance. "With that experience, we went to reduce the weapons flow and remove them," he said. "They were a danger to coalition forces and to civilians."9 However, his soldiers found no weapons in the al-Falluja school.

In addition to being near the community, the two-story school was also a defensible structure, with a seven-foot high perimeter wall around the compound and sweeping views from the roof.

Worried local leaders met with U.S. commanders on April 24, explaining that al-Falluja was a religious city and requesting sensitivity from U.S. troops. Al-Falluja residents resented the aggressive street patrols of the soldiers, they said. That same day, a crowd of 400-500 people protested the U.S. military presence in nearby al-Ramadi, Col. Bray said. Someone threw a grenade on top of a Humvee, he told Human Rights Watch, injuring two U.S. soldiers. In the following days, U.S. convoys were often pelted with stones.

In al-Falluja, stories began to circulate about U.S. soldiers inappropriately eyeing Iraqi women, a serious offense to the community. Rumors spread that soldiers were using night vision goggles to look at women as they hung clothes out to dry, or that soldiers were giving children bubble gum with pornographic pictures.10 Some people were apparently convinced that U.S. troops were detaining children at the school. Some local religious leaders reportedly gave credence to such rumors by repeating them in sermons. Human Rights Watch spoke with residents for whom these stories had become hard fact.

In the words of Imam Muhammad al-Zuba`i, responsible for the Nazal mosque next to the al-Qa'id school: "The U.S. soldiers didn't behave very well with the people of al-Falluja. They were using their night-vision equipment to see who was on the roofs of the houses, watching the families of the neighborhood. This disturbed the privacy of the people. And there were intensive American patrols."11

Imam al-Zuba`i said he did not have any meetings with U.S. military personnel for fear of upsetting the neighborhood. "People did not like me talking to them," he said. "They would think I am a spy or agent."

U.S. soldiers did regularly survey the area around the school with binoculars and night-vision equipment, a standard practice of perimeter security. Residents took this to be unduly invasive of their privacy. Soldiers also gave children candy, but Human Rights Watch saw no evidence of candy wrappers with pictures of women, let alone pornographic images.

U.S. soldiers may have believed that they were simply engaging in standard security and patrolling practices, but some in the local community resented their presence and actions.

Lt. Col. Nantz said he tried to communicate with the community as best he could, even inviting individuals inside the school to see that no children were being held. "Presence patrols" worked the neighborhood on foot to meet residents, although troop security was always a concern. He was limited, he said, by a lack of translators.12

Tension ran particularly high at the al-Qa'id school occupied by Charlie Company. Schools in al-Falluja were scheduled to reopen on April 29, and parents in the neighborhood wanted the soldiers out.13 On April 27, a group of children and young men playing soccer in a lot behind the school threw stones and shot slingshots at the soldiers on the roof. The soldiers dispersed the group with a smoke bomb.14

The 1st Battalion was open to withdrawing from the school, and they asked the mayor for an alternative location to base the troops. According to Lt. Col. Nantz and his commander, Col. Bray, Charlie Company had decided to withdraw from the al-Qa'id school on April 29. On the day of the shooting, April 28, their bags were already packed.

For the recently arrived U.S. soldiers in al-Falluja, the city seemed like a hostile place, while for many local residents the soldiers were unwelcome occupiers. At least three weapon markets continued to function in town-at one market visited by Human Rights Watch, AK-47 assault rifles were available for U.S. $40, and heavier .50 caliber machine guns were also on sale. Gunfire was regularly heard throughout the city, as residents fired into the air to celebrate the return of electricity or other momentous events. On April 28, tensions ran even higher: it was Saddam Hussein's birthday, and many expected pro-Saddam demonstrations in the center of the country.

2 Literally, those who sacrifice themselves, in this case for Saddam Hussein.

3 Human Rights Watch interview with Col. Arnold Bray, Baghdad, May 13, 2003.

4 Human Rights Watch interview with Col. Arnold Bray, Baghdad, May 13, 2003. In September 2000, the U.S. Army issued an 800-page report on the conduct of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division during peacekeeping operations in Kosovo. The inquiry, sparked by the January 2000 rape and murder of an eleven-year-old Kosovar Albanian girl by a member of the regiment, found incidents of misconduct by some soldiers, including use of excessive force, inappropriate touching of Kosovar women, and problems with the crowd control methods used by the troops. Four officers and five enlisted men were punished. The inquiry concluded that the troops were not adequately trained for peacekeeping missions, and that they had experienced difficulty adjusting their combat mentality to a peacekeeping role. The army ordered all troops involved in future peacekeeping missions to go through a full "mission rehearsal exercise" before deployment to ensure they receive proper training.

5 The strength and political relevance of tribe and clan-based social structures have waxed and waned in Iraq throughout the modern era. British authorities promoted tribal sheikhs as allies of colonial rule. The spread of land reform, increasing urbanization, and ideology-based political movements gradually undermined the relevance of tribal relations, though they continued to figure in recruitment into special security and military services established by successive republican governments. After 1991 the government of Saddam Hussein recognized the authority of sheikhs to regulate local affairs in return for their loyalty, in some cases allowing them to arm their followers. At a moment when the central Iraqi political authority has collapsed, such social identifications appear to have become even more salient. The principal tribe in the al-Falluja/al-Ramadi area is al-Dulaim. Others are al-Jubbur, al-Shummar, al-`Ubaidat and al-Hamdan.

6 Human Rights Watch interview with Mahdi al-Qubaisi, manager of al-Falluja municipality, al-Falluja, May 3, 2003; "Iraqis Said to Be Killed as U.S. Forces Fire on Protest," Associated Press, April 29, 2003.

7 Human Rights Watch interview with Mayor al-`Alawani, al-Falluja, May 6, 2003.

8 Human Rights Watch interview with Lt. Col. Eric Nantz, Baghdad, May 8, 2003.

9 Human Rights Watch interview with Lt. Col. Eric Nantz, Baghdad, May 8, 2003.

10 The manager of al-Falluja municipality, Mahdi al-Qubaisi, told Human Rights Watch: "We explained that this is a religious city and they had to respect our traditions. But some of the soldiers were watching the women putting out the washing with their goggles. This is a religious city and people didn't accept this. Some children were given some bubble gum wrapped in striptease pictures. It wasn't right to do this." Human Rights Watch interview with Mahdi al-Qubaisi, al-Falluja, May 3, 2003.
One of the wounded men from the school shooting, Ahmad Khatim, told Human Rights Watch: "The soldiers were on the roof of the school, and they used their goggles to see our wives, daughters, and sisters when they were washing the clothes. In their hands were bottles of beer. They used to watch our women. I also heard they gave children strip-tease pictures." Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad Khatim, al-Falluja, May 3, 2003.

11 Human Rights Watch interview with Muhammad al-Zuba`i, Imam of Nazal Mosque, al-Falluja, May 5, 2003.

12 Human Rights Watch interview with Lt. Col. Eric Nantz, Baghdad, May 8, 2003.

13 The al-Qa'id primary school has 950 male pupils and 850 female pupils. The boys have class in the morning and the girls in the afternoon. Human Rights Watch interview with Muhammad Ahmad al-`Isawi, manager of the al-Qa'id School, al-Falluja, May 3, 2003.

14 Human Rights Watch interview with2LT. Wesley Davidson, Platoon leader in Charlie Company, Baghdad, May 9, 2003; Muhammad al-Zuba`i, Imam of Nazal Mosque, al-Falluja, May 5, 2003; Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad Khatim, al-Falluja, May 3, 2003.

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