The Iraqi city of Falluja continues to be the target of US forces strikes which claim the lives of many innocent civilians. Frank Wallis looks back at the massacre which took place in April and argues that President George W Bush went to Falluja to destroy an enemy which did not really exist
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As residents look on US Marines conduct house to house search for weapons in Falluja on Monday, 12 April ; An Iraqi man climbs over the rubble of a destroyed house in Ramadi
The Falluja massacre of April 2004 cannot be understood without reference to a series of tragic events that occurred during the previous year. Falluja, with a population estimated at 200,000, is 56km west of Baghdad on the Euphrates River. The hundreds of deaths which took place in Falluja were the result of a poorly planned and badly managed campaign against alleged foreign terrorists. United States President George W Bush went to Falluja to destroy an enemy that did not really exist, and concluded the operation with a futile return to power of the same people Bush's government sought to drive out in the first place. Resistance to the American intrusion was homegrown, and not under the direction of foreign terrorists.
On 23 April 2003, elements of the 82nd Airborne Division arrived in Falluja as part of the American invasion of Iraq which began in March 2003. Special forces had been in the area briefly and at various times ever since the start of the invasion. Local government had been established by residents on an emergency basis to prevent looting. Only five days later, about 200 men marched into the Nazzal neighbourhood to protest the US occupation. At the two-storey Al-Qaed School, US soldiers claimed to have come under fire. They returned fire into the crowd and at houses across the street, killing 18 people. Army commanders claimed to have found automatic weapons at the scene but refused to let journalists see them.
Relations between the US occupiers and the residents of Falluja never recovered. On 1 May another two men, part of a demonstration protesting the 23 April incident, were shot to death by US troops. It was a day when Defense Secretary Donald H Rumsfeld made a triumphal entry into Baghdad to meet the first consul, Lt Gen Jay Garner, who exulted proudly: "We ought to look in a mirror and get proud and stick out our chests and suck in our bellies and say, Damn, we're Americans."
The provisional mayor urged Americans to leave, but the official military line insisted that trouble in Falluja and elsewhere was the work of Saddam loyalists and Al-Qaeda. Local army commanders believed 99.9% of the residents wanted the Americans to stay. Journalists who spoke with residents noticed a different reaction: many men hated the occupation and wanted jihad.
Part of the army's 3rd Infantry Division, with 4,000 troops, was taking over from the 1,200 troop 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment on 3 June. Col David Perkins promised to "get tough" with the resistance. After an attack on a police station on 5 June the army began aggressive patrols in the neighbourhoods. They forced men to lie down on the floor in front of their families, under the boots of the soldiers, which is considered especially humiliating. Residents warned that local tradition would not accept such behaviour, and those men who were killed by Americans had family who would not rest until revenge had been taken. With patrols coming under fire almost daily, it was clear that the invasion had turned into counter-insurgency.
Abdullah Mohammed, part-owner of an Islamic bookstore across the street from the Shaker Thahi Mosque, warned that Iraqis were extremists -- in work, in behaviour, in opinions. They were extremists in doing good, and in doing bad. They would wear the Americans out. Other residents said people did not accept humiliation or colonialism, and if things did not improve then people would demand jihad.
In July 2003 Lt Gen Sanchez, Pro-consul L Paul Bremer III, and President Bush continued to blame insurgency on criminals, drug dealers, Baathists, and Al-Qaeda. The military took a page from the Vietnam playbook and tried to win "hearts and minds" by giving out free frozen chickens, petrol, medical supplies, and footballs.
In mid-September, two-year-old Dunia Hamid was shot dead in her home during an ambush of US troops. Eight Iraqi policemen were gunned down by Americans near the Jordanian Hospital in a horrible case of mistaken identity. The Coalition Provisional Authority apologised for the killing but mourners shouted "By the Quran we will slay the Americans!" Later, a 14-year- old boy was killed when US troops opened fire at a wedding party. Three members of a family (mother, father, grandmother) were shot to death in their family van at a highway underpass, along with a man on a motorcycle. Vendors in Falluja reported that among their best-selling CDs were Osama bin Laden's statements as aired on Al-Jazeera television.
In October 2003 the insurgency continued, and Iraqis died. Two Iraqi civilians were shot dead, and then a minivan filled with employees of the Iraq State Oil Company on the way to Ramadi came under US fire. Four Iraqis were killed. Two civilians in nearby cars were also killed. A truck bomb exploded about 200 yards from the main police station, in the central market, killing at least four people. The religious officer for Bravo Company prayed to Jesus to help find "bad guys" and kill them. His men were now referring to Iraqis as hajis, not from respect, but from contempt.
Soon after Saddam was captured in December 2003 the US military assumed the insurgency would evaporate. They were wrong. It seemed everyone in Falluja was talking about expelling the occupier. Even children in school were being told to prepare for a struggle. Iraqi civil defence and police were reluctant to accompany Americans on their search patrols. On 21 January 2004, rebels fired on a bus in Falluja that was carrying Iraqi women who worked at an American military base in Habbaniya. The ambush killed four women. It was dangerous to work for the Americans
In mid-February 2004 about 50 rebels yelling " Allahu Akbar !" attacked a police station killing at least 15 police officers and freeing 87 prisoners. Four rebels and several Iraqi civilians died, bringing the number of dead to 25.
In early March 2004 three marines were killed in separate attacks as the 1st Marine Division moved to replace the army's 82nd Airborne Division. On 26 March the marines killed 15 people, some of them children. One marine died.
On 31 March four American military contractors in two SUVs were ambushed and killed in Falluja by a group of rebels in what appeared to have been a planned attack. A mob burned the bodies, dismembered them, and dragged them to a one-time railroad bridge where two torsos were strung up. American news media kept calling the victims "civilians", but more research revealed that these men were veterans of US Special Forces, hired by the Pentagon. Local imams denounced the mutilation of the dead, but not the killing itself.
Brig Gen Mark Kimmitt said the next day that despite an upsurge in violence, the situation was "relatively stable". Lt Gen James Conway, commander of the marines, said he had been given a "God-sized challenge" to pacify Falluja. In Washington, Rumsfeld held a series of meetings at the Pentagon with his top advisers, including the commander in the Persian Gulf, Gen John P Abizaid, to discuss how to deal with Falluja. A senior military official said that American forces in Iraq were already planning an ''appropriate response'' to the grisly killings. Bremer promised that the deaths would not go unpunished.
The conservative press in America also had some suggestions. Tammy Bruce, a Fox News Channel talk-show host demanded that Falluja be razed to the ground, and "Islamic beasts" taught a lesson. She remarked that "Even they know they should be destroyed." The columnist Jack Wheeler said Falluja must be carpet-bombed by B-52s into rubble, and the powdered rubble sown with salt as the Romans did to Carthage. He said the virus of barbarism had to be contained.
On 5 April 2004 Marine Lt Col Gregg Olson summoned local leaders to his camp outside Falluja and demanded they hand over the "evildoers". Even as he spoke Operation Vigilant Resolve was unfolding. Marines had begun infiltrating the industrial zone. Several houses in the neighbourhood were bombed to rubble. The attack involved more than 2,000 US troops and hundreds of armored vehicles. By early Tuesday 6 April, a marine regiment had taken complete control of the industrial zone, and a second regiment was operating on the north side. The marines imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew and banned all public gatherings. Military officials assured the press that "collateral damage" was being kept to a minimum, and that residents wanted American occupation. American bulldozers were digging a moat around the city.
Space will not allow a detailed account of all that happened in April, but one third of the population fled the city to avoid being killed by Americans. Yet, many Shia fighters from all over Iraq were going into Falluja to help Sunni insurgents repel the assault. The main hospital was cut off from most residents by marines and aid workers complained that Americans were shooting ambulances. Local doctors were almost driven mad by the casualties. Attack helicopters, F-16 and F-18 aircraft, and AC-130 gunships strafed and bombed rebel positions on both sides of the Euphrates River. Tanks and artillery were also employed. On 9 April Bremer declared a ceasefire to open negotiations, one year to the day after American troops captured Baghdad.
Iraqi doctors set the death toll from five days of fighting at more than 300, many of them women and children. But these were preliminary estimates. Soon it rose to 600. Later counts would range from 219 to 950. Is it conceivable that these were all rebels? When whole neighbourhoods with cowering families were wiped out? When snipers operated with impunity?
Marine Lt Col Brennan Byrne said "People will bend to our will if they are afraid of us." Marine snipers are trained that to kill one man will terrorise a thousand. They proved effective. Numerous civilian witnesses told of American snipers killing men, women, and children. It would be difficult to prove any of these claims, and deaths could have been from crossfire among rebels and Americans, but one journalist interviewed a sniper who claimed 24 kills. Marines at the front did not see Iraqis as human beings anymore, and in their minds "terrorist" blended into "civilian". Any male of military age on the streets after the curfew, armed or not, was a potential target. But the curfew seemed to last all day.
During the fighting, some military officials held to the Bush line, but others could only guess as to the number and organisation of the insurgency. One journalist made it into the city and reported that four powerful Islamic leaders exerted authority over most of the neighbourhood mujahidin who fought the Americans. Residents guessed the number of foreign insurgents at 12 to 200, out of possibly 1,200 rebels.
During talks in late April, US forces demanded that Al- Jazeera leave Falluja as a condition for ceasefire. Bush's advisers were concerned about Arab world reaction to a general attack on Falluja, which marines desired. Bush stated "Most of Falluja is returning to normal," even as US bombs fell on the city during negotiations. A deal was reached on 29 April and US forces retreated. By late May 2004 the US military conceded policing of Falluja to the Iraqi Civil Defence, composed of members of Saddam's military and rebels who fought the Americans. What had those people died for?
April 2004 was a massacre, an event in which unarmed human beings are grouped together and killed. A massacre differs dramatically from combat because combatants are armed. Massacres are a crime against humanity. Calls for an official inquiry from aid workers and journalists have gone unanswered. Civilians in Falluja were grouped together by reason of residence. The entire municipality was transformed into a hunting ground for snipers, attack helicopters, warplanes, tanks, and infantry. Culpability rises to the top of the chain of command, and hence to the Bush government.