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Battle for Falluja: Photos from Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Posted By Ashley Gilbertson On January 28, 2008 @ 12:07 pm In History,Military,Non-Fiction Reviews,Photography | 7 Comments

Corporal Nathan R. Anderson [front right] listens to Lieutenant General John Sattler’s pep talk the afternoon before Operation Phantom Fury commenced. Five days later, Anderson was shot by an insurgent disguised as a member of the Iraqi Army. He died immediately.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: A Photographer’s Chronicle of the Iraq War
by Ashley Gilbertson and Dexter Filkins
University Of Chicago Press, 260 pp.

The captured fighter claimed to be a student who had gotten stuck in Falluja. A Marine responded, “Yeah, right, University of Jihad, motherfucker.”

In March 2004, four American contractors were ambushed in the center of Falluja, a city forty-three miles west of Baghdad. They were dragged from their cars, beaten, and their bodies burnt. Their charred remains were strung up from a bridge leading out of town, amid cheering residents and insurgents. Photographs of the scene were beamed around the world, incensing politicians and civilians, and sparking the inevitable debate over the depiction of graphic violence in the media. Many networks and papers would not carry the images.

Back in Iraq, furious Marine generals who were supposedly in control of Falluja promised swift vengeance and on April 4 attacked the city with everything they had. Hundreds of Iraqis were killed in a week of intense urban combat. Concerned about America’s image in the Muslim world, the Bush administration suspended the offensive, withdrew the Marines, and hastily assembled an Iraqi brigade to clean up the city. The plan failed miserably, and Falluja quickly became the center of the insurgency, both tactically and symbolically. It was known as the City of Mosques in the Middle East, and its population of 350,000 was fervently Islamic, often adhering to the extreme sect of Salafism. Songs were written about the April battle praising the mujahedeen’s victory against the “great Satan” and the “martyrs” who died fighting. Rumors circulated that the bodies of jihadists killed by the Americans smelled of roses.

Sunni fighters moved freely on the streets; they amassed weapons and coordinated attacks with little to disturb them. Occasionally an F-16 would drop bombs on what the U.S. military thought were rebel safe houses. Due to bad intelligence or just incorrect targeting, they often flattened civilian homes and businesses—among them Haji Hussein’s, the best kebab joint in the country.

Twenty miles outside the city. the Marines plotted their revenge and gathered the strength to exact it. By October, the press started hearing rumors of a new offensive code named Operation Phantom Fury. Television personalities from around the globe started descending on Iraq, eager to get high-profile embeds for the campaign.

There were lengthy discussions at the New York Times bureau in Baghdad over who should be sent to cover the battle. Photographer Shawn Baldwin and I decided that he would take one of the two slots we had been allocated; he needed combat in his portfolio and I already had Karbala and Samarra. To Shawn’s surprise, he and reporter Richard A. Oppel Jr. were flown to Ramadi to accompany a propaganda unit that would take the hospital on the eastern edge of Falluja but would not actually set foot in the city.

My rotation had finished and I was at the bureau packing to leave the country when a scramble ensued to get someone from the paper to cover the battle from the frontlines. Times higher-ups contacted generals and politicians, and eventually we were given two more slots, one of them mine. Joanna had been expecting to see me in Paris two days later. She was unhappy, but she understood that photographing the battle was an opportunity I couldn’t let go. I repacked my bags, this time including body armor and equipment I needed to file my photos under battle conditions. A few hours Later I boarded an aircraft bound for the dusty Camp Falluja five miles east of the city.

A marine releases a Dragon Eye surveillance drone on the outskirts of Falluja. These low-flying aircraft are equipped with cameras that transmit live images, helping the marines plan their attacks. Hearing the drones’ high, irritating buzz during the battle meant the shooting had stopped for a few minutes.

A marine fires a grenade at insurgent positions outside the cultural center. Once the marines occupied the center, their enemy constantly attacked them from every side of the building.

Marines file past one of the four insurgents they killed near the highway to the cultural center. Some insurgents were wearing suicide vests that they detonated after marines gave chase. To prevent the vests from being used again, Captain Omohundro ordered plastic explosives to be put on the bodies and they were blown up minutes later.

During a pause in the fighting I asked Lance Corporal Alex Saxby what he got for his birthday. “Two dead friends,” he said.

Corporal Nicholas “Ski” Ziolkowski hunts the sniper who has been hunting him since the beginning of the battle. As usual, Ski wasn’t wearing a helmet; he said it interfered with his ability to see through his rifle’s scope. Only two days later Ski’s sniper shot and killed him.

A member of the Marines’ elite Force Recon shouts from just inside the cultural center after being wounded by insurgents.


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