We need to be clear on what is about to happen in the Iraqi city
of Falluja, about 64 kilometers west of Baghdad and a key center of
Sunni population in Iraq. This city has for many months held out as
a center of Sunni-based political-military resistance, refusing to
accept the authority either of the former US-led occupying
authority nor, since July, of the interim Iraqi administration led
by the Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi.
Falluja is now to be brought to heel by overwhelming military
power. As I write this, the US attack on the city has begun. The
message to Falluja from the US armed forces in Iraq and from Allawi
was brutally simple: submit now to Baghdad's authority or face
It is still possible that resistance in Falluja will melt away
in the face of US attack. While this would be a more optimistic
scenario, I think it more likely at this point that the insurgents
will fight, because too much is at stake politically for them to
accept a bloodless Allawi victory. I look here at the - in my
judgment, now more likely - scenario that Falluja insurgents will
dig in and defy the invasion force.
What I believe is then likely to be done to Falluja will be a
war crime and crime against humanity, morally indefensible by any
civilized standard or for that matter, by the Statute of the
International Criminal Court (to which, conveniently, neither the
US nor Iraqi Government adheres).
This will be no neat, surgical strike. To get the measure of
this, think of the Warsaw rising in 1944, or the Russian Army's
destruction of the Chechen capital, Grozny. In 1999 this already
battered city (of originally 400,000 people) was finally destroyed
by massive Russian bombardment. Today, insurgents still fight it
out with Russian troops among the ruins.
Eighteen months ago, before the US-led invasion of Iraq, Falluja
was a living city of 300,000 people. Now - depopulated of most of
its civilians by intimidation and fear - what is left looks like it
is about to be blasted out of existence, simply as a demonstration
of overwhelming US power in Iraq.
Of course, the US Army has been for weeks "humanely" encouraging
women and children to leave the encircled city through checkpoints
while there is still time to save their lives.
The Russians did the same before and during the destruction of
Grozny. In a few days, as the battle and the flight of civilians
expands, there may be tens of thousands of new refugees in tent
cities, and tens of thousands of women left without husbands, and
children left without fathers.
If this attack goes ahead as appears inevitable, it will
obviously breach the laws of war and the Geneva conventions. First,
it will grossly exceed proportionality in terms of ends and means.
What intended political or military objective could justify so much
death, the creation of so many new refugees, and wholesale
destruction of homes?
What threat does the city of Falluja pose to the Iraqi state at
this point? Allawi has claimed that free elections cannot take
place unless Falluja is subdued. What a spurious argument.
The truth is that this city, which has become a symbol of
Sunni-Iraqi political resistance to the occupiers, is to be made an
example of, to deter others. The message the siege of Falluja sends
is brutally simple: resist us and we will destroy you. It is the
same message that the Wehrmacht sent in Warsaw in 1944, and the
Russian Army in Grozny in 1999.
This attack will also violate the rules of war and the Geneva
conventions in having grossly indiscriminate effects on civilians
and civilian homes and infrastructure. America's largely untrained
in battle but over-armed forces will start their attack "humanely",
but as they inevitably take numbers of lethal casualties, their
tactics will quickly escalate to indiscriminate bombing and
shelling of the city using their WMD armories.
Eventually, the attackers will flatten the city and kill
everyone that still resists in it. Falluja will be the Iraqi
people's Masada, and it will sow seeds of deep anti-Western hatred
in the Middle East for decades to come.
The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, understands all this, in
pleading for a negotiated solution. And as usual, Washington is
summarily ignoring his pleas.
As a military ally with our troops in Iraq, Australia is morally
implicated in this. While Australian former SAS commanders, the
Governor-General, Major-General Michael Jeffery, and the Australian
Christian Lobby's executive chairman, Brigadier Jim Wallace,
moralize about abortions and gay marriages, Australia's military
ally is about to destroy a living city and its families.
An unnamed US military commander in the tightening military ring
around Falluja proudly boasted (as heard on ABC Radio yesterday)
that this battle will go down in US military history as another
Hue. Indeed it will - who can forget the wholesale artillery
destruction of that sacred, historic Vietnamese city? "We had to
destroy it in order to save it" was the line at the time. Now it
looks like our military ally in Iraq is about to do it all over
again in Falluja.
What are Australian political leaders - Government or Opposition
- saying to Washington at this point? Are they saying anything at
all? We reap what we sow.
Tony Kevin, a former Australian diplomat, is a visiting
fellow at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies,
Australian National University, Canberra.
© 2004 The Sydney Morning Herald