Witnessing Fallujah's Suffering

Fallujah, Iraq -- Fallujah is a bit like southern California. Situated on the edge of Iraq's western desert, it has been transformed into an agricultural town with the help of extensive irrigation.

The town is marginally better off than the dirt-poor villages that surround it. It has wide streets and squat, sand-colored buildings, and a majority of its people are farmers. It is also Ground Zero for the escalating war between the U.S. military and the "insurgents."

I was in Fallujah during the recent "ceasefire" -- the brief lull in the bloody battle secured by Iraqi leaders who are trying to negotiate a truce. This is what I saw and heard.

Since the "ceasefire," large-scale bombing has become infrequent. The Americans are still using heavy artillery but mainly relying on snipers.
When the assault on Fallujah began, the power plant was the first to be bombed. Electricity is now provided by generators and usually reserved for places with important functions, such as the four hospitals still operational in Fallujah. Among these, one is a minor emergency clinic, while another is a car repair garage.

The situation was frantic and chaotic at the clinic, and I found it difficult to find someone to translate all that I witnessed. I depended for much of my information on Makki al-Nazzal, a lifelong Fallujah resident who works for the humanitarian NGO, Intersos. He had been pressed into service as the manager of the clinic since all the doctors were working around the clock with minimal sleep.

A gentle, urbane man who speaks fluent English, Al-Nazzal is beside himself with fury at the actions of the U.S. military. (When I asked him if it was all right to use his full name, he said, "It's ok. It's all ok now. Let the bastards do what they want.") He talks of coalition snipers targeting ambulances, being hit, of them killing women and children. Describing the horror that the siege of Fallujah has become, he says, "I have been a fool for 47 years. I used to believe in European and American civilization."

I had heard such claims of U.S. brutality before arriving in Fallujah, but these are the bits of evidence I saw for myself.

An ambulance with two neat, precise bullet-holes in the windshield on the driver's side, pointing down at an angle that indicated they would have most likely hit the driver's chest (the snipers were on rooftops, and are trained to aim for the chest). I also saw a second ambulance, again with a single, neat bullet-hole in the windshield.

These were deliberate shots designed to kill the drivers. There is no way to explain them away as panicked, indiscriminate spraying of fire. The ambulances also have flashing red, blue or green lights and sirens blaring. In the pitch-dark of blacked-out city streets there is no way to mistaken them for some other kind of vehicle.

As for killing women and children, I saw perhaps a dozen wounded brought in during the four hours that I was at that small clinic. Among them was a young 18-year-old girl, shot in the head. She was experiencing seizures and foaming at the mouth when they brought her in; doctors did not expect her to survive the night.

Another likely terminal case was a young boy with massive internal bleeding. I also saw a man with extensive burns on his upper body and shredded thighs, with wounds that could have been from a cluster bomb. But there was no way to verify the cause of his suffering in what resembled a scene from a madhouse: wailing relatives, shouts of "Allahu Akbar" (God is great), and angry railing at the Americans.

It's very difficult to find out exactly what is happening in a town reeling from the brunt of a military offensive. It is, however, crystal-clear that the assertions of the Bush administration that the mujaheddin are a small isolated group, repudiated by the majority of Fallujah's population, are laughably untrue.

The mujaheddin are members of the community and fully supported by it. They brought in many of the wounded and stood around openly conferring with doctors about logistical and other issues; not once did I see them threatening people with their ubiquitous Kalashnikovs.

One of the mujaheddin was wearing an Iraqi police flak jacket. On questioning others who knew him, I learned that he was in fact a member of the Iraqi police.

One of our translators, Rana al-Aiouby says of the people of Fallujah, "These are simple people." Apart from the patronizing tone of the remark, there is a strong element of truth to it. These are agricultural tribesmen with very strong religious beliefs who don't easily trust strangers. They are not so far different from the Pashtun of Afghanistan -- good friends and terrible enemies. I am safe because of the presence of my friends because I have clearly come to help.

The mujaheddin belong to the community just as much as the stone-throwers in the first Palestinian intifada, and the townsfolk use the same term shabab, which means "youth," to refer to them.

Ali, a young man who was among the wounded we transported to Baghdad, says he was not a mujaheddin but, when asked his opinion of them, he responds with a smile and a big thumbs-up. Thanks to the Pentagon, any young man who is not a mujaheddin today may well wind his aqal around his face and pick up a Kalashnikov tomorrow.

After this siege, there is no doubt that many will.

The battle for Fallujah during the invasion last year was not particularly fierce. Al-Nazzal tells me that the people of Fallujah refused to resist the Americans just because Saddam told them to. He says, "If Saddam said work, we would want to take off three days. But the Americans had to cast us as Saddam supporters. When he was captured, they said the resistance would die down, but even as it has increased, they still call us that."

In fact, it would have taken very little to gain the good will of the people of Fallujah. Tribal people like these have been easily duped by imperialists for centuries. There was no reason why the U.S. could not have followed that time-tested strategy of using the carrot instead of the stick.

Now it is too late; the town has reached its tipping point.

To Americans, "Fallujah" brings to mind the gruesome death of four contractors; to Iraqis, the name stands for the savage reprisal that has killed 600 Iraqis, including an estimated 200 women and over 100 children (women and children are not members of the mujaheddin, which makes at least half of the dead noncombatants, not including many of the men who were civilians, as well).

When a Special Forces colonel said during the Vietnam War, "We had to destroy the town in order to save it," he encapsulated the insane logic of the entire war in a single statement.

The same logic is being applied in Iraq today by the Bush administration: Fallujah cannot be "saved" from its mujaheddin unless it is destroyed.

Rahul Mahajan is publisher of the weblog "Empire Notes." He was in Fallujah recently and is currently writing and blogging from Baghdad. His most recent book is "Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond."

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