Reprisal in Fallujah

The slaughter in Fallujah was just that -” slaughter. The Christian Science Monitor, perhaps the most widely trusted newspaper in America, reported on April 14 that “a US assault left 600 dead last week [and] victims include hundreds of women and children, according to hospital and clinic records.”

The U.S. attack on Fallujah was a reprisal operation ordered in reaction to the killing and dismemberment of four American “civilian security contractors” on Wednesday, March 31. Chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, vowed the following day that American forces would “hunt down” those responsible for the “bestial” killing and mutilation of the four civilian contractors in Fallujah. “We will respond,” said Kimmitt. “We are not going to do a pell-mell rush into the city. It’s going to be deliberate. It will be precise and it will be overwhelming. . . . We will reestablish control of that city and we will pacify that city,” reported The Washington Post on April 1.

What sets the U.S. operation in Fallujah apart from countless previous instances of civilian “collateral damage” in both Iraq and Afghanistan are Kimmitt’s statements plainly revealing that the assault on Fallujah was a deliberate, carefully planned reprisal action. The killing of large numbers of civilians was no accident. That the deaths of hundreds of non-combatant women and children were part of the U.S. military plan is borne out by dozens of reliable reports, including statements by U.S. military commanders, that U.S. forces employed high-explosive munitions in an urban warfare setting. Fallujah is, or was, a city of some 250,000 people, the vast majority of them civilian non-combatants.

U.S. commanders did not hesitate to order F-16 fighter-bombers to drop 500-lb. bombs on a Fallujah mosque they said was being used by resistance fighters, killing an as yet undetermined number of civilians including several children. Despite often-repeated assurances by government spokespersons that U.S. bombs and bullets are precisely targeted to minimize civilian casualties, reliable reports from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan have revealed an ugly contrary reality. Doctors at Fallujah’s hospitals and civilian refugees who fled the city in terror reported that U.S. snipers were shooting old men, women, and children in the head, neck, and upper body.

“I never saw a more despicable and evil action by the Americans. Even Sharon or Saddam are better. They [the American troops] shot children and women in the face and neck every time,” Doctor Tariq Atham told United Press International.

In his press conference statement on April 13, President Bush told the nation that America’s men and women in uniform in Iraq are “performing brilliantly.” But our closest allies on the battlefield in Iraq have a different view.

According to an April 4 report by Sean Rayment, defense correspondent for The Telegraph, “Senior British commanders have condemned American military tactics in Iraq as heavy-handed and disproportionate. One senior Army officer told The Telegraph that America’s aggressive methods were causing friction among allied commanders and that there was a growing sense of ‘unease and frustration’ among the British high command. The officer, who agreed to the interview on the condition of anonymity, said that part of the problem was that American troops viewed Iraqis as untermenschen – the Nazi expression for ‘sub-humans.’ Speaking from his base in southern Iraq, the officer said: ‘My view and the view of the British chain of command is that the Americans’ use of violence is not proportionate and is over-responsive to the threat they are facing. They don’t see the Iraqi people the way we see them. They view them as untermenschen. They are not concerned about the Iraqi loss of life in the way the British are. Their attitude towards the Iraqis is tragic, it’s awful.'”

The British officer went on to say that, “When US troops are attacked with mortars in Baghdad, they use mortar-locating radar to find the firing point and then attack the general area with artillery, even though the area they are attacking may be in the middle of a densely populated residential area. They may well kill the terrorists in the barrage but they will also kill and maim innocent civilians. That has been their response on a number of occasions. It is trite, but American troops do shoot first and ask questions later. They are very concerned about taking casualties and have even trained their guns on British troops, which has led to some confrontations between soldiers.”

A report like that one, appearing in a leading British newspaper, will be widely seen for what it is, a none too subtle warning from our closest and most important ally in the Iraq war to the Bush administration, its military leaders at the Pentagon, and its commanders on the ground Iraq.

Reprisal attacks are not uncommon in war. The most famous reprisal attack on a town during WWII was carried out by Hitler’s Nazis in Czechoslovakia in June 1942 after the death of Nazi SS security police chief Obergruppenfuhrer Reinherd Heydrich. During Heydrich’s reign of terror, 5000 anti-Fascist fighters and their helpers were imprisoned and courts working under martial law were kept busy. The Nazis had people summarily executed without a trial in order to spread fear throughout the country. Many people from Kladno district of Czechoslovakia died on the scaffold or in concentration camps. The operation by Czechoslovak parachutists in which Heydrich was mortally wounded on May 27, 1942 brought reprisals against the village of Lidice, west of Prague, which shocked the whole world.

The vague contents of a letter addressed to a factory worker roused the suspicions of the Kladno Gestapo that there was some connection between Heydrich’s assassination and the Horak family in Lidice who had a son serving in the Czechoslovak army in Britain. Although investigations and a house-search produced no evidence, the Nazis needed to carry out an act of vengeance for the killing of “an outstanding man of the German nation,” and for this they chose the village and the people of Lidice.

On June 10, 1942 a few hours after midnight the Nazis began their reprisal against the 503 men, women, and children of Lidice. The events of that summer day are recorded in a documentary, filmed by those who actually carried out the brutal crime against innocent people. Although it is a silent film, it can be understood by all people, irrespective of race, religion, or national origin. This film served as document No. 379 at the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi German leaders in 1945.

Nazis shot to death one hundred and seventy-three men in the garden of a Lidice farm. The women and children were taken to the gymnasium of Kladno grammar school. Three days later the children were taken from their mothers and, after babies and small children were selected out for transfer to and re-education in German families, 82 children were poisoned by exhaust gas in specially adapted vehicles in the Nazi extermination camp at Chelm. The women were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, which usually meant either a quick or a lingering death.

Once they had emptied it of its inhabitants, the Nazis began to destroy the village itself, first setting the houses on fire and then razing them to the ground with plastic explosives. They did not stop until they had destroyed the church and even the cemetery. When they were through, all that remained where the village of Lidice had once stood was an empty space.

Fallujah is no Lidice. But the parallels between these two reprisal operations are chilling enough, and it now appears that more non-combatant civilians, including women and children, may have been killed by the U.S. military in Fallujah than by the Nazis at Lidice. Thoughtful observers can only wonder how far the U.S. military would have taken its campaign of reprisal and collective punishment against the people of Fallujah, and how many more innocent civilians would have died, had not the Shiite uprising in the South, a Muslim religious holiday, warnings from Arab and Muslim leaders across the Middle East and around the world, pressure from the British and other allies, the support of Baghdad Sunnis and Shiites, and fierce resistance by Fallujan fighters themselves all conspired to cause U.S. commanders to agree to a shaky ceasefire. And the crisis is not yet resolved.

Some reports indicate that the U.S. military’s problems in Fallujah are largely of its own making. Trigger-happy U.S. troops fired wildly into a crowd killing 13 unarmed demonstrators in Fallujah in late April 2003 and two days later killed three more in a similar confrontation. In September 2003, U.S. soldiers just outside Fallujah accidentally shot dead 10 Iraqi policemen who were in hot pursuit of a criminal or a terrorist gang. One of the few objective accounts of the current problems in Fallujah is an article by Jonathan Steele. Writing from Fallujah for The Guardian, a British newspaper, Steele reported on actions taken by the U.S. Marines in the days that preceded the killing and mutilation of the four “civilian contractors,” which he described as an “eruption of popular hatred.”

“As residents ushered reporters into their homes a few days ago,” wrote Steel, “shortly before this week’s attack on four American security guards (though mercenaries might be a better term), it was clear that deep communal anger was lurking here, and had reached the boiling point. They wanted to show the results of several US incursions over four days and nights last week.”

“Rockets from helicopter gunships had punctured bedroom walls. Patio floors and front gates were pockmarked by shrapnel. Car doors looked like sieves. In the mayhem 18 Iraqis lay dead. On the American side two Marines were killed. It was the worst period of violence Fallujah has seen during a year of occupation.”

“So this week’s retaliation [against the four “civilian contractors”] comes as no surprise. The cycle of violence that US troops unleashed looks and feels increasingly like Palestinian rage in the face of excessive force by an occupying power.”

Steel called the American reaction to Iraqi resistance “heavy-handed and indiscriminate,” and went on to describe one Fallujah man’s reaction to the chaos the Marines left behind after they occupied his home overnight. “Cupboards were ransacked, a computer had gone, and empty brown bags which once contained army rations littered every room. He was particularly upset at finding them in his teenage sister’s bedroom.”

“Not many of Fallujah’s people are former Baathist loyalists, as the Americans say, nor have the Americans produced evidence of large numbers of foreign ‘jihadists’, according to Steel. “They are ordinary families, driven by nationalist pride, and increasingly by a desire to retaliate when their homes and neighborhoods are violated and their relatives and friends killed.”

The Bush administration’s war in Iraq is rapidly becoming the political, economic, military, and humanitarian disaster that many peace and social justice activists predicted up to the moment it began, precisely the kind of war that millions of anti-war protesters around the world feared when they poured into the streets in the hope of stopping it. It is difficult to imagine an American administration or military command more out of touch with reality, but the Orwellian disconnect was apparent on March 25 last year when, with the sounds and images of the U.S. military’s “Shock and Awe” bombardment of Baghdad still reverberating, Secretary of State Colin Powell assured National Public Radio’s Juan Williams that, “the Arab public will realize that we came in peace.” Shock and awe have long since given way to shock and disgust as the president’s war for personal, corporate, and national aggrandizement has proved, again and again, to be impossible to spin convincingly as a fight to bring democracy to the Middle East and peace to an increasingly terrified world.