Gillo Pontecorvo's brilliant 1965 film The Battle of Algiers - which details the brutal Algerian war of independence against France - was recently screened at the Pentagon, billed as "How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas". The evidence so far is that US military policy-makers learned nothing from it. The deeply troubling events of the last two weeks in Iraq, including the indiscriminate killing of several hundred Iraqis by US forces in Falluja, raise serious doubts about the methods currently adopted by the coalition. The heavy-handed tactics being used bear little resemblance to peace-keeping, and far more to those of an occupying army seeking to crush all resistance.
A more recent parallel to the events in Falluja is the bloodletting in Jenin almost exactly two years ago, when Israeli forces destroyed a Palestinian refugee camp in the middle of the town. Although the first casualty figures in Jenin were overestimated, the Israeli action was condemned worldwide. Now, the US military itself estimates that 600 Iraqis have been killed so far during the fighting in the Iraqi town, where many of Falluja's 300,000 civilians have been caught in the middle of a ring of US soldiers, and where fierce fighting still rages. The New York Times reported yesterday that US marines had orders to shoot any males who look of military age out after dark, whether armed or not. "Sometimes the gunfire was so long and steady it sounded like rain," the Times observed. This is a massacre in the making. The United Nations should investigate the deadly events in Falluja, as it did in Jenin, as soon as possible.
The fighting in Falluja started when the US sent 2,000 troops in response to the killing and abuse of the bodies of four US security guards, outsourced casualties of an often privatized war. Yet Falluja is well known as a Sunni stronghold, and was always likely to react violently to the American show of force. And so it happened - the US intrusion provoked a counter-reaction of increasingly well-organized opposition, which US army officers confess they can't identify. The further 2,500 US troops massing outside Najaf, and reports last week of British forces in Amara killing 15 people without sustaining any casualties, suggest that the coalition's tactics are deeply flawed and worryingly reckless.
When Tony Blair travels to Washington to meet George Bush tomorrow, he should impress upon him that the aggressive stance currently being taken by coalition forces is making matters worse. Peace-keepers should simply seek to do just that. Second, Mr Blair must try to convince Mr Bush of the need for elections in Iraq as soon as possible, with every effort being made for the elections to be seen as legitimate by Iraqis. Tainted democracy will dilute what goodwill remains for the American efforts.
Sadly, Mr Bush's televised press conference yesterday gave little hope that he recognizes the gravity of the situation. He insists on tying unrelated incidents - such as the bombing in Bali and the events of September 11 - with the ongoing resistance in Falluja. And Mr Bush maintains a rose-tinted version of progress, saying: "Iraq will be a free, independent country." Yet the peril is that the violence will alienate the "responsible Iraqi leaders" that Mr Bush spoke of yesterday - playing into the hands of the more radical, such as Moqtada al-Sadr, that the US is currently fighting.
A striking scene in The Battle of Algiers is a response by the French commander to allegations of brutality by his forces: "We are soldiers and our only duty is to win ... I would now like to ask you a question: should France remain in Algeria? If you answer yes, then you must accept the consequences." Substitute "France" for the US, and "Algeria" for Iraq, and the question remains the same.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004