The illegal invasion, occupation, and subsequent violence perpetrated on the people of Iraq has lent considerable evidence to the assertion that truth is the first casualty of war.
It's hard to get past the US Administration's rhetoric that the siege of Falluja was an operation of pacification to ensure the Iraqi population's participation in free and democratic elections planned for late January. Is it not Orwellian that annihilation and occupation have been redefined to represent pacification and liberation? One wonders if the entire nation of Iraq isn't being destroyed in the name of saving it.
Falluja should go down in history as a case study on how truth is subverted, co-opted, buried, and ignored. The first US-led siege of Falluja, a city of 300,000 people, resulted in a defeat for Coalition forces. Prior to the second siege in November, its citizens were given two choices: leave the city or risk dying as enemy insurgents. The people of Falluja remembered the siege of April all too well. They remembered being trapped when Coalition forces surrounded and blockaded the city and seized the main hospital, leaving the population cut off from food, water, and medical supplies. Families remembered the fighting in the streets and the snipers on the rooftops, which prevented movement by civilians. They remembered burying more than 600 neighbors - women, children, and men - in makeshift graves in schoolyards and soccer fields.
Under threat of a new siege, an estimated 50,000 families or 250,000 people fled Falluja. They fled with the knowledge that they would live as refugees with few or no resources. They left behind fathers, husbands, brothers and sons, as males between the ages of 15 and 45 were denied safe passage out of the city by US-led forces. If the displaced families of Falluja were fortunate, they fled to the homes of relatives in the surrounding towns and villages or to the city of Baghdad - homes that were already overcrowded and overburdened after 20 months of war and occupation. Many families are forced to survive in fields, vacant lots, and abandoned buildings without access to shelter, water, electricity, food or medical care and alongside tens of thousands of displaced and homeless people already living in the rubble of Baghdad.
What of the estimated 50,000 residents who did not leave Falluja? The US military suggested there were a couple of thousand insurgents in the city before the siege, but in the end chose to treat all the remaining inhabitants as enemy combatants.
Preceding the siege, journalists were prevented from entering the city, the main hospital was seized by US forces and access denied to the wounded. The population was subjected to daily aerial bombardments. The use of cluster bombs in urban areas was recorded. Doctors reported seeing patients whose skin was melted from exposure to phosphorous bombs. Water and electricity were cut off and people quickly ran out of food as they were trapped in their homes by sniper fire. Families trying to flee the devastated city were executed, including a family of five, shot down trying to cross the river to safety; their murder was witnessed by an AP photographer. With few independent journalists reporting on the carnage, the international humanitarian community in exile and the Red Cross and Red Crescent prevented from entering the besieged city, the world was forced to rely on reporting from journalists embedded with US forces. In the US press, we saw casualties reported for Falluja as follows: number of US soldiers dead; number of Iraqi soldiers dead; number of "guerillas" or "insurgents" dead. Nowhere were the civilian casualties reported in those first weeks.
Although there has been resounding silence about the humanitarian disaster in Falluja, the true cost to the civilian population is emerging. Preliminary estimates are as high as 6,000 Iraqis killed, a third of the city destroyed, and over 200,000 civilians living as refugees. It is estimated that it could be months before people are allowed to return to what is left of their homes. According to a UN emergency working group on this humanitarian crisis, there are shortages of food items and cooking fuel. The temperatures have dropped, underscoring an urgent need for winterization items and appropriate shelter. The International Committee for the Red Cross reported on December 23 that three of the city's water purification plants had been destroyed and the fourth badly damaged.
Aid organizations have repeatedly been denied access to the city, hospitals, and refugee populations in the surrounding areas. Sporadic fighting continues as some insurgent forces return. Iraqi National Security Advisor Qassem Daoud has warned of explosive ordnance still hidden in debris and on the streets. Residents seeking to return are required to go through intense security checks before being allowed to re-enter Falluja.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights voiced deep concern for the civilians caught up in the fighting. She said all those guilty of violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws - including the targeting of civilians, indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, killing of injured persons, and the use of human shields - must be brought to justice.
The Orwellian double-talk of the Administration and Pentagon officials belies the reality "on the ground." US actions in Falluja precipitated a tersely worded proclamation from the Muslim Scholars Association denouncing the violence and calling for a boycott of upcoming elections, claiming that "elections are being held over the corpses of those killed in Falluja and the blood of the wounded."
The continued use of force and violence is preventing Iraq from establishing stability and security. As the slaughter continued in Falluja, violence escalated in Mosul, Baquba, Hilla, Baghdad and cities across Iraq. As firefights continue in Falluja, Iraq's third-largest city, Mosul, has become a new front line in the ongoing war. Suicide bombs and car bombs, firefights, kidnapping, targeted assassinations, and citywide curfews compound the violence. For the young men and women serving in the US military, November became the second bloodiest month (by one death), since the ill-conceived invasion. Violence is claiming an increasing number of Iraqi civilians - an estimated 100,000 civilians had been killed before the November Falluja attack. During the months of October and November, 338 Iraqis associated with the "new" government or with Americans were assassinated.
Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, an already battered nation has spiraled downward into chaos. Basic security, and Iraq's fundamental infrastructure have deteriorated under Coalition forces. The US Administration's obsession with the use of violence and killing is only leading to more violence and death. As the US relies on Shia Muslim combatants to join with US forces on the siege of Sunni-inhabited Falluja, and Kurds to help rein in the violence in Mosul, surely an argument can be made that civil war is being fostered by the occupation.
"In order to save the village, we had to destroy it." This chilling mantra from the Vietnam era is never far from our consciousness. Prior to the siege, a US Marine Commander suggested that Falluja was the Hue City of our generation (Christian Science Monitor, 11/8/04). History reminds us that at great human cost, US Marines retook Hue City from the North Vietnamese. What the Commander apparently failed to remember is Hue City eventually fell back into Vietnamese hands, as Falluja will soon be back in Iraqi control. What is more troubling is that a larger reality seems to have been forgotten; the US government lost the war in Vietnam.
Shock and awe followed by chaos and increasing militarization have proved to be catastrophic. There is no military solution in Iraq. The world must find another way and it must begin with the immediate pullout of US and Coalition forces.
Mary Trotochaud and Rick McDowell are the American Friends Service Committee's representatives in Iraq. Their home is in Baghdad, but they are temporarily living in Amman, Jordan. This article was published in the December 2004/January 2005 issue of Peacework magazine, www.afsc.org/peacework.