We must not forget Fallujah

Mike Marqusee

The destruction of Fallujah was an act of barbarism that ranks alongside My Lai, Jallianwallah Bagh, Guernica, and Halabja.

ONE YEAR ago this week, the United States-led occupying forces launched a devastating assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah. The mood was set by Lt. Col. Gary Brandl: “The enemy has got a face. He’s called Satan. He’s in Fallujah. And we’re going to destroy him.”

The assault was preceded by eight weeks of aerial bombardment. American troops cut off the city’s water, power, and food supplies, condemned as a violation of the Geneva convention by a U.N. Special Rapporteur, who accused occupying forces of “using hunger and deprivation of water as a weapon of war against the civilian population.” Two-thirds of the city’s 300,000 residents fled, many to squatters’ camps without basic facilities.

As the siege tightened, the Red Cross, Red Crescent and the media were kept out, while men between the ages of 15 and 55 were kept in. American sources claimed that between 600 and 6,000 insurgents were holed up inside the city — which means that the vast majority of the remaining inhabitants were non-combatants.

On November 8, 10,000 U.S. troops, supported by 2,000 Iraqi recruits, equipped with artillery and tanks, supported from the air by bombers and helicopter gunships, blasted their way into the city. It took a week to establish control of the main roads; another two before victory was claimed. The city’s main hospital was selected as the first target, The New York Times reported, “because the U.S. military believed it was the source of rumours about heavy casualties.” An Associated Press photographer described U.S. helicopters killing a family of five trying to ford a river to safety.

“There were American snipers on top of the hospital shooting everyone,” said Burhan Fasa’am, a photographer with the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation. “With no medical supplies, people died from their wounds. Everyone in the street was a target for the Americans.”

Incendiary arms

The U.S. also deployed incendiary weapons, including white phosphorous. “Usually we keep the gloves on,” Captain Erik Krivda said, but “for this operation, we took the gloves off.”

By the end of operations, the city lay in ruins. Fallujah’s compensation commissioner has reported that 36,000 of the city’s 50,000 homes were destroyed, along with 60 schools and 65 mosques and shrines.

The U.S. claims that 2,000 died, most of them fighters. Other sources disagree. When medical teams arrived in January they collected more than 700 bodies in only one-third of the city. Iraqi NGOs and medical workers estimate between 4,000 and 6,000 dead, mostly civilians — a proportionately higher death rate than in Coventry and London during the Nazi blitz.

The collective punishment inflicted on Fallujah — with logistical and political support from Britain — was largely masked by the U.S. and British media, which relied on reporters embedded with U.S. troops. The BBC, in particular, offered a sanitised version of the assault: civilian suffering was minimised and the ethics and strategic logic of the attack largely unscrutinised.

Fallujah proved to be yet another of the war’s phantom turning points. Violent resistance spread to other cities. In the last two months, Tal-Afar, Haditha, Husaybah — all alleged terrorist havens heavily populated by civilians — have come under the hammer. Fallujah is still so heavily patrolled that visitors have described it as “a giant prison.” Only a fraction of the promised reconstruction and compensation has materialised.

Like Jallianwallah Bagh, Guernica, My Lai, Halabja, and Grozny, Fallujah is a place name that has become a symbol of unconscionable brutality. As the war in Iraq claims more lives, we need to ensure that this atrocity — so recent, so easily erased from public memory — is recognised as an example of the barbarism of nations that call themselves civilised.

– Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

(Mike Marqusee is a co-founder of Iraq Occupation Focus.)

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