18 September 2004

Remembering Falluja

By Ian Sinclair

The experienced Middle East journalist Robert Fisk argues the Americans have faced the same problem in Iraq from the start: "explaining how Iraqis who they allegedly came to 'liberate' should want to kill them." The questions raised about US tactics in Iraq by Steve Snelling in last Saturday's EDP are thus very pertinent. The recent uprising in Najaf confirms Fisk's thesis, however nowhere is this paradox more apparent than in Falluja, where, during a week in early April, US forces killed over 600 Iraqis and wounded over 1,000.

For the Western media, events in Falluja began with the murder and mutilation of four US private security guards on March 31. However, the Iraqis know different. In April 2003 US soldiers killed 18 protestors during a demonstration. After six months of occupation, US forces had killed at least 40 people in the city. In response to the killing of an American soldier, on March 27 US Marines undertook a "sweep" through the city, killing at least six Iraqi civilians, including an 11 year-old boy. It was in this heightened atmosphere that the private security guards were murdered.

On April 5 the US military sealed off the city, cut the power and launched military operations, using heavy artillery, cluster bombs, 70-ton main battle tanks, F-16 fighter-bombers and Apache helicopters. The US commander explained that US marines are "trained to be precise in their firepower", and that "95% of those killed were military age males."

However, eyewitness accounts from those who managed to flee the city, international observers and journalists contradict the official US story. During the incursion, US soldiers occupied the city's main hospital, a violation of the Geneva Convention. Ibrahim Younis, the Iraqi emergency coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres, said "the Americans put a sniper position on top of the hospital's water tower and had troops in the single-story building." Mr. Younis noted this meant many wounded died because of inadequate healthcare.

The heavy use of snipers by US forces is confirmed by testimony from both sides. A 21-year old Marine Corporal told the Los Angeles Times that Falluja was "a sniper's dream." He continued: "Sometimes a guy will go down, and I'll let him scream a bit to destroy the morale of his buddies, then I'll use a second shot." However, it is clear US snipers killed many Iraqi civilians. Journalist Dahr Jamail saw "an endless stream of women and children who have been sniped by the Americans." Jo Wilding, a human rights campaigner from Bristol said, "the times I have been shot at - once in an ambulance and once on foot trying to deliver medical supplies - it was US snipers in both cases."

Contrary to US military claims of precision firepower, the director of the town's general hospital, Rafie al-Issawi, estimated that the vast majority of the dead were women, children and the elderly.

With a few exceptions, the facts presented above have been largely ignored by the mainstream media in the UK. The chief of the Falluja delegation for the ongoing negotiations with the US said, "we are facing what can be called… war crimes." Amnesty International said they were "deeply concerned at the ever mounting civilian death toll" and that "the parties to the conflict have disregarded international humanitarian law." Even Adnan Pachachi, widely seen as the most pro-American member of the (then operating) Iraqi Governing Council said "we consider the action carried out by US forces as illegal and totally unacceptable."

In Najaf, the US forces implemented similar tactics to Falluja - sniping civilians, cutting the power and limiting access to hospitals. According to American commanders as many as 1,000 Iraqi fighters may have been killed in Najaf, compared to just 11 American deaths.

Last Friday, the vision of an independent Iraq, free of US/UK troops, gained an unlikely supporter. In its editorial the Financial Times argued "the time has come to consider whether a structural withdrawal… can chart a path out of the current chaos." And it is chaos. On Sunday 13 Iraqis were killed in Baghdad when US helicopters fired on a crowd of unarmed civilians. On Monday a US air strike on Falluja killed over 15 people, including an ambulance driver and two nurses when an ambulance was hit. On Tuesday 47 people were killed and over 100 injured in a bomb blast in Baghdad, and 12 policemen were killed in Baquba.

Only a complete Coalition withdrawal will bring this bloodshed to an end, because, as Kofi Annan said last October, "as long as there's an occupation, the resistance will grow."