When the Smoke Clears Around Fallujah, What Horrors will Be Revealed?
By Kim Sengupta and Raymond Whitaker
As the Americans move street by bloody street towards control of the insurgents’ stronghold, aid agencies warn of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Victory was being declared yesterday in the battle of Fallujah, with 1,000 rebels reported dead, hundreds more in custody and spectacular footage from embedded television crews, showing Marines charging through deserted neighborhoods.
“It’s like those pictures from the advance into Baghdad,” said one watcher as the TV showed the view over a tank gunner’s shoulder, with fire pouring down an empty street. But that comment unconsciously identified the real problem: more than a year and a half after George Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq at an end, the US military, backed by British and Iraqi forces, is having to fight the war all over again.
Yesterday, as American forces embarked on what were described as “mopping-up” operations in Fallujah—though heavy shelling was still being reported—relief organizations warned that there could be a humanitarian disaster in the city. “Conditions in Fallujah are catastrophic,” said Fardous al-Ubaidi of the Iraqi Red Crescent. The Iraqi Health Minister, Alaa Alwan, said ambulances had begun transferring “significant numbers” of civilian wounded to Baghdad hospitals, but did not say how many.
Washington and the Iraqi interim government could argue that civilians in Fallujah had ample warning of what was to come. More than 80 percent of the population of 200,000 to 300,000 were said to have fled before the assault was launched on Monday. But enough reports trickled out of the besieged city to show that many inhabitants still remained, despite their invisibility in the television footage, and that their plight was severe.
Aamir Haidar Yusouf, a 39-year-old trader, sent his family out of Fallujah, but stayed behind to look after his home, not just during the fighting, but the looting which will invariably follow. “The Americans have been firing at buildings if they see even small movements,” he said. “They are also destroying cars, because they think every car has a bomb in it. People have moved from the edges of the city into the center, and they are staying on the ground floors of buildings.
“There will be nothing left of Fallujah by the time they finish. They have already destroyed so many homes with their bombings from the air, and now we are having this from tanks and big guns.”
U.S. commanders insist civilian casualties in Fallujah have been low, but the Pentagon famously claims that it does not keep figures. Escaping residents described incidents in which non-combatants, including women and children, were killed by shrapnel or hit by bombs. In one case earlier in the week, a nine-year-old boy was hit in the stomach by shrapnel. Unable to reach a hospital, he died hours later of blood loss.
“Anyone who gets injured is likely to die, because there’s no medicine and they can’t get to doctors,” said Abdul-Hameed Salim, a volunteer with the Iraqi Red Crescent. “There are snipers everywhere. Go outside and you’re going to get shot.”
Sami al-Jumaili, a doctor at the main Fallujah hospital who escaped arrest when it was taken, said the city was running out of medical supplies, and only a few clinics remained open. “There is not a single surgeon in Fallujah,” he said. “We had one ambulance hit by U.S. fire and a doctor wounded. There are scores of injured civilians in their homes whom we can’t move. A 13-year-old child just died in my hands.”
Around 10,000 people took shelter in Habbaniya, 12 miles to the west of the city, and many had tragic stories. “There have been a lot of innocent people killed,” said Suleiman Ali Hassan, who lost his brother. “The Americans say they are just aiming their tanks and aircraft at the mujaheddin, but I know of at least eight other people who have died beside my brother.”
Samira Sabbah arrived at the refugee center yesterday with her three children, but her husband stayed behind in Fallujah. “People have been living like animals,” she said. “There has been no electricity, no food and no water. We were very afraid to move out because there were so much shooting everywhere. I do not know how we will live now.”
Rasoul Ibrahim, a father of three, fled Fallujah on foot with his wife and children. “There’s no water,” he said. “People are drinking dirty water. Children are dying. People are eating flour because there’s no proper food.”
Mohammed Younis, a former policeman, said: “The Americans and Allawi [Iyad Allawi, Iraq’s interim Prime Minister] have been saying that Fallujah is full of foreign fighters. That is not true, they left a long time ago. You will find them in other places, in Baghdad.”
The truth of his words were confirmed by no less than Mr. Allawi’s national security adviser, Qassem Daoud, who said more than 1,000 “Saddamists and terrorists” had been killed in the battle for Fallujah, and 200 captured. Of those 200, however, only 14 are believed to be non-Iraqis, mostly Iranians. What of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Washington’s top bogeyman in Iraq, the al-Qa’ida arch-terrorist whose supposed presence in Fallujah was one of the main justifications for the assault? “He has escaped,” said Mr. Daoud.
This was the first official admission of what virtually everyone else in Iraq had realized long ago: that Zarqawi, even if he had ever been in Fallujah, was not going to stay put to await arrest by the Americans. Every time the interim government demanded of the city’s clerical leadership that they hand him over, they insisted they did not have the power to hand over foreign extremists, and did not even know where the Jordanian was.
They repeated this after a final ultimatum last weekend from Mr. Allawi himself. The assault went ahead anyway, just as everyone knew it would, even though a senior American officer said as it was beginning that it was likely that most of the “foreign fighters” had already melted away.
So who were the Americans fighting? In Mr. Daoud’s parlance, nearly all appeared to be “Saddamists”—in other words, Iraqis whose main motive is to fight against the occupation, rather than “terrorists,” who presumably come from outside to force local people into acts of resistance against their will.
Despite the Iraqi interim government officially having ordered the attack, military strategy is still being driven by a White House obsessed with “smoking terrorists out of their holes.” Fallujah has been the victim of this misconception of what is happening in Iraq, but other places will follow—perhaps Mosul, which was reported yesterday to be partly under insurgent control, or Ramadi, where many of the hardliners fled from Fallujah.
The U.S. simply does not have enough forces to pacify the whole of the Sunni center of Iraq at once, which explains why Britain was asked to send the Black Watch north. “As soon as we press down hard in one place, they pop up somewhere else,” complained one officer, and his words were borne out by a rash of small-scale attacks yesterday in places where U.S. troops had been thinned out for the assault on Fallujah.
The city was unquestionably the base for many of the car bombers and fighters who have staged attacks across central Iraq in recent months, but the main reason it became so was the resentment caused by the previous attempt to win hearts and minds by military means—the botched U.S. assault in April. In military terms this operation has been more successful, but politically it will be just as disastrous as its predecessor, which fuelled the present insurgency.
One of the main Sunni populist groups, the Iraqi Islamic Party, has resigned from the Iraqi government in protest against the Fallujah battle. “The American attack on our people in Fallujah has led, and will lead, to more killings and genocide without mercy from the Americans,” said its leader, Mohsen Abdel-Hamid.
The Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential group of Sunni clerics, is calling for a boycott of January’s planned elections, saying they will be held “over the corpses of those killed in Fallujah and the blood of the wounded.”
Even President Bush admits that violence is likely to increase rather than decline as the election approaches. But as American forces contemplate what is left of Fallujah, some might remember the words of a U.S. officer standing amid the ruins of Hue in Vietnam a generation ago. “In order to save the city,” he declared without a hint of irony, “we had to destroy it.”
—The Independent (UK), November 14, 2004