Skip to content

Fallujah: a name that will live in infamy

The Guardian, 10 November

[Below is the complete article; an edited version appeared in The Guardian.]

One year ago this week, in the wake of Bush’s re-election, US-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. US troops cut off the city’s water, power and food supplies, a practise condemned as a violation of the Geneva Convention by a UN Special Rapporteur, who accused occupying forces of “using hunger and deprivation of water as a weapon of war against the civilian population.” Some two thirds of the city’s 300,000 residents fled, many to squatters’ camps without basic facilities.

As the siege tightened, the Red Cross, the Red Crescent and the media were kept out, while males between the ages of 15 and 55 (“military age”) were kept in. US sources claimed between 600 and 6000 insurgents were holed up inside the city – which means that the vast majority of the remaining inhabitants were non-combatants.

On 8th November, 10,000 US troops, supported by 2000 Iraqi recruits, equipped with state-of-the-art artillery, tanks and armoured personnel carriers, supported from the air by bombers, fighters and helicopter gunships, began blasting their way into a city the size of Leicester. It took a week to establish control of the main roads, and another two before victory was claimed.

Survivors of the onslaught tell a tale of prolonged terror peppered with acts of cruelty. The city’s main hospital was selected as the first target, The New York Times reported, “because the American military believed that it was the source of rumours about heavy casualties.” An AP photographer described US 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. “The dead were buried in gardens because people couldn’t leave their homes. There were so many people wounded, and with no medical supplies, people died from their wounds. Everyone in the street was a target for the Americans.”

Confirmation that the occupiers treated Fallujah as a free-fire zone turned up in The Christian Science Monitor, where a reporter embedded with US troops noted: “In fact, when anyone does poke their head up, they’re almost universally considered to be a target.”

The US also deployed cluster bombs and incendiary weapons, iinclduing white phosphorous. “Usually we keep the gloves on,” Army Capt. 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 8,400 shops, 60 nurseries and schools, and 65 mosques and shrines. Ali Fadhil, a journalist writing in the Guardian, visited the city in December: “It was completely devastated, destruction everywhere. It looked like a city of ghosts. Fallujah used to be a modern city; now there was nothing.” Derrick Anthony, a 21 year-old who took part in the assault, commented, “It’s kind of bad we destroyed everything, but at least we gave them a chance for a new start.”

And the dead? The US claims that 2000 died, most of them fighters. Other sources disagree. When medical teams arrived in January they collected more than 700 rotting bodies in only one-third of the city. Iraqi NGO’s and medical workers estimate more than 4000 dead, mostly civilians. The Iraqi Red Crescent put the number at 6,000. In any case, Fallujah’s fatalities, running at 1-2% of the city’s population, were proportionately higher than those suffered by Coventry or London during the Blitz.

The collective punishment inflicted on Fallujah – with the logistical and political support of the UK – was largely masked by the US and British media, which relied on reporters embedded with US 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 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 itself is still so heavily patrolled that visitors have described it as “a police state” and “a giant prison”. Only a fraction of the promised reconstruction and compensation has materialised.

Like Jallianwallah Bagh, Guernica, My Lai, Sabra and Shatila, 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, yet so easily erased from public memory – is recognised as an example of the barbarism of nations that call themselves civilised.