Fallujah, the Guernica of Our Times

By Mac McKinney

As the Marine Corps siege of Fallujah intensified, guerrilla assaults and general combat were already erupting not only in Anbar Province, but throughout Iraq, in an eerie historical parallel to the bloody British assault on Fallujah in 1920, which also fanned revolt throughout the country, worsening the overall British position. Fox News reported how on Tuesday, April 6, 12 Marines, their post overrun by an apparently large force, were slain in Ramadi, some 24 miles to the west of Fallujah.

From the previous weekend on, violence had flared from Kirkuk and Mosul in the north, on into Baghdad and its suburbs in central Iraq, to Kut, Nasiriyah, Karbala and Amarah in the south. Most alarming to the American-led Coalition forces was the armed resistance of the young fire-brand Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, whose father was a famous martyr against Saddam Hussein, and whom the Americans had just declared an outlaw, issuing a murder warrant for his arrest, a warrant, with apologies to the movie Apocalypse Now, about as meaningless as issuing a traffic ticket in this carnage-filled land.

Al-Sadr, with his own large, very loyal and well-armed Shiite militia, was already declaring solidarity with the citizens of Fallujah, and began engaging not only US troops, but the less visible British, Italians, and Ukrainians as well throughout the south on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. A number of these troops were wounded, one Ukrainian slain. As usual, the Iraqis had far higher casualties, and a very rough estimate of the death toll throughout these three days was 30 Americans and over 130 Iraqi fighters slain, with, typically, no official attempt to count purely civilian casualties. Moreover, who was a civilian and who was a guerrilla were often indistinguishable, so body counts of "insurgents" have always to be taken with a grain of salt. Whatever the count, the American command now realized that they had underestimated the Iraqi response to Operation Vigilant Response. Undermanned commanders were finding themselves so hard-pressed that they began jerking rear-guard troops out of offices and messes right into combat. "This is not like any other firefight we've seen so far," an unnamed military source is quoted as saying by Fox. "There are bullets flying all over the place."

Al-Sadr was not the only one declaring solidarity with Fallujah. The eyes of the world had been turned on Fallujah ever since the slaying of the Blackwater military contractors on March 31, and what many observers had warned against and now saw actually transpiring was an outright siege of a civilian population as a retaliatory measure, a clear flaunting of the modern Geneva Conventions. The newest Conventions were drafted, after the tremendous slaughter of civilian populations as well as awful abuse of prisoners of war in World War II, to reign in and criminalize such cruelties.

A Matter of Linguistics

So now the Bush Administration and military commanders in Iraq were walking a legal and ethical tightrope, disclaiming that a campaign that obviously contained elements of vengeance and collective punishment against Fallujah was not what it appeared to be. So the assault on the city was phrased in terms of freeing Fallujah from Baathist and foreign insurgents, as if the insurgents were themselves an oppressive, occupying force, rather then largely indigenous defenders of their city. Thus we could have an unnamed squad leader with 1st Platoon, Company E, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, quoted as saying rather disjointedly, "We will win the hearts and minds of Fallujah by ridding the city of insurgents. We're doing that by patrolling the streets and killing the enemy". (www.globalsecurity.org/mi...lujah.htm)

So the military mindset proffered that the insurgents were somehow an alien force to the city's population, and not really their husbands, sons, uncles and brothers. But this was the same skewed rhetorical ideology employed in Vietnam decades ago, as we patronizingly told the nodding rice farmer by day that the Viet Cong were his mortal enemy, while as night fell, that same rice farmer recovered his hidden weapons and became the Viet Cong.

This linguistic artifice, however, did not alter the fact that the Marines were going to have to knock down half of the city to achieve their goals, given that they estimated the number of insurgents in Fallujah might be as high as 20,000 fighters. (www.globalsecurity.org/mi...solve.htm)

Did the Bush Administration really want to go in that direction, one fraught with ghastly historical parallels of armies besieging civilian populations to root out guerrilla resistance, such as the infamous destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto in WW II? Almost exactly 61 years earlier than Operation Vigilant Resolve, commencing in April of 1943, German Nazi forces all but razed the entire Jewish Ghetto as they hunted down and killed or captured several thousand Jewish resistance fighters intermingled with hapless and equally doomed noncombatants, methodically reducing block after block to rubble with artillery, tank fire and the outright torching of buildings.

Another, more recent example of besieging a city to destroy the resistance is the extremely brutal Russian assault on Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, Russia's breakaway republic, in 1995, an assault that saw almost the entire city destroyed and over 20,000 people slain. How eager were Marine Corps commanders to now follow in the infamous footsteps of the Russians and Germans? And did they have much choice anyway, given that the Bush Administration was calling the political and strategic shots?


Vociferous critics, however, both within Iraq and internationally, did not want to give the Marine Corps such a gruesome opportunity. As the Marines renewed their assault on Wednesday, April 7th, slowly subduing the city one block at time with ongoing combinations of aircraft, helicopters, artillery and tank support for the grunts on the ground, such groups as the International Occupation Watch Center, Baghdad, were issuing international appeals for protests and initiatives against the siege, as disquieting reports of attacks on civilians flooded in. At the same time Marines had been taking command of the rooftops of secured buildings, building them up with sandbags to create sniper and mortar nests, and putting their snipers to work. Snipers soon became the mainstay of battle wherever the Marines fell into a static situation, the typical sniper averaging 31 kills during the siege. (www.globalsecurity.org/mi...solve.htm)

Recalling that it is often not easy to distinguish civilians from insurgents other then by an insurgent's hands wrapped around a weapon, we must poignantly ask, how many mistakes were made by young Marines peering at a moving body several hundred yards away through a rifle scope, Marines perhaps seething with anger because a buddy had just been shot?

Recall also that the city had not been evacuated to any extent, and that panicked residents by the hundreds, if not thousands, with entire neighborhoods now being caught in crossfires, strafings and explosions, were running and hiding for their lives. One resident, Abu Muher, who escaped to Baghdad, recounts that American warplanes were bombing the city heavily before he left and that, "There were so many snipers, anyone leaving their house was killed". (Vigilant Resolve by Dahr Jamail and Omar Khan www.williambowles.info/me...iraq.html)

There were also continuing reports that ambulances were being shot at by snipers, although the Marines, while not exactly denying this, claimed vociferously that ambulances were delivering weapons and ammo to the insurgents. Regarding ambulances, one eyewitness recounted:

"Three of my friends agreed to ride out on the one functioning ambulance for the clinic to retrieve the wounded. Although the ambulance already had three bullet holes from a U.S. sniper through the front windshield on the driver's side, the fact that two of them are westerners was the only hope that soldiers would allow them to retrieve more wounded Iraqis. The previous driver was wounded when one of the sniper's shots grazed his head.

"What I can report from Falluja is that there is no ceasefire, and apparently never was. Iraqi women and children are being shot by American snipers. Over 600 Iraqis have been killed by American aggression, and the residents have turned two football fields into graveyards. Ambulances are being shot by the Americans. And now they are preparing to launch a full scale invasion of the city". (Vigilant Resolve by Dahr Jamail and Omar Khan www.williambowles.info/me...iraq.html)

What the above witness is referring to regarding a ceasefire is what eventually developed by April 9, for as the scope of combat, destruction and casualties steadily mounted, the hospitals in Fallujah continued to report all this to Baghdad and the outside world. Doctors at Fallujah General Hospital and the Jordanian Hospital were incensed with the awful bloodshed of men, women and children and the growing lack of medical resources to cope with the wounded and dying. They found even greater cause for alarm when Marines took up positions on the roads to the hospitals. To quote one doctor, "The Americans shot out the lights in the front of our hospital, they prevented doctors from reaching the emergency unit at the hospital, and we quickly began to run out of supplies and much needed medications". (Vigilant Resolve by Dahr Jamail and Omar Khan www.williambowles.info/me...iraq.html)

The Marines had effectively shut down these hospitals, allegedly because insurgents were firing on them from there, as Brigadier General Kimmit would later state, but this claim has been hotly disputed. Be that as it may, the International Occupation Watch Center now released a statement on April 8 which read in part:

"Falluja and Adaamiya are currently under siege, surrounded by Occupation Forces, in contravention of the Geneva Convention that prohibits holding civilian communities under siege. Hospitals do not have access to sufficient medical aid, essential medicine and equipment or blood supplies. In Falluja, the hospitals have been surrounded by soldiers forcing doctors to establish field hospitals in private homes. Blood donors are not allowed to enter; consequently, mosques in both Baghdad and Falluja are collecting blood for the injured. Water and electricity have been cut off for the past several days". (www.notinourname.net/war/...apr04.htm)

Such statements, coupled with the stark civilian casualty reports, were now beginning to strongly impact members of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, who began to openly criticize the siege, condemning it as disproportionate and indiscriminate. This, coupled with mounting international pressure, finally led Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, to declare a unilateral ceasefire on April 9, in part to allow the reopening of the hospitals. The mauled and bleeding city had won a temporary respite.