News and opinions on situation in Iraq

Americans talking to themselves in Fallujah

Nigel Parry, Electronic Iraq, 9 January 2005

A US Marine from Lima Company passes by Iraqis as he patrols the devastated city of Fallujah. (AFP/Hrvoje Polan)

Although April and November 2004 will be remembered as the months of the massive U.S. military assaults on Fallujah, casual news watchers may be surprised to learn that as recently as January 7th U.S. Marines continued to battle insurgents in the city, even employing airstrikes against what the US Central Command (CENTCOM) termed "militant targets".

Strangely, there is limited focus in the media about the continued U.S. military actions in Fallujah. Visitors to CENTCOM's website, found at, will not find much more.

References to "Fallujah" are missing from recent reports on CENTCOM, although a "Camp Fallujah" byline appears at the beginning of some releases. The U.S. military terminology for "Fallujah" in vogue is apparently "Anbar Province", a large and unspecific area of 53,476 square miles (138,501 square kilometers), with a population over 800,000.

Map of Al-Anbar Province in Western Iraq. (UN)

There is a good reason that the U.S. Administration would want to discourage any focus on Fallujah at this time. In the last weeks, residents who fled the fighting in the city have been beginning to return, and even those who have not lost family members are finding utter devastation of their former lives. Fallujah, under a strict dusk-to-dawn curfew, has no running water, sewage system, or electricity, and that's just the utilities.

In an interview with BBC News, acting director of the Falluja general hospital Dr Saleh Hussein Isawi reported what he found on entering the city on Christmas Eve:

I was there, inside the city - about 60% to 70% of the homes and buildings are completely crushed and damaged, and not ready to inhabit at the moment.

Of the 30% still left standing, I don't think there is a single one that has not been exposed to some damage.

One of my colleagues... went to see his home, and saw that it is almost completely collapsed and everything is burnt inside.

When he went to his neighbours' home, he found a relative of his was dead and a dog had eaten the meat off him.

I think we will see many things like this, because the US forces have cleared the dead people from the streets, but not from inside the homes.

Dazed Iraqis returning to the rubble following the US onslaught are having to suffer the additional indignity of full fingerprinting and retinal scans at US military checkpoints.

The Knight Ridder news service reported on 8 January 2005 that Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, the senior U.S. ground commander in Iraq, has said that 40,000 residents – less than 20% of the city's population of 300,000 – have so far returned to the city. The Iraqi interim government puts the figure at 60,000.

Writing in a January 7th article on The Nations', independent journalist Dahr Jamail described the devastation awaiting the returning refugees:
...three-quarters of [Fallujah] has by now been bombed or shelled into rubble, a city in whose ruins fighting continues even while most of its residents have yet to be allowed to return to their homes (many of which no longer exist). The atrocities committed there in the last month or so are, in many ways, similar to those observed during the failed U.S. Marine siege of the city last April, though on a far grander scale. This time, in addition, reports from families inside the city, along with photographic evidence, point toward the U.S. military's use of chemical and phosphorous weapons as well as cluster bombs there. The few residents allowed to return in the final week of 2004 were handed military-produced leaflets instructing them not to eat any food from inside the city, nor to drink the water.
In the coming weeks and months, we will learn more about what happened in Fallujah. The international human rights organisations will visit to research reports that will be published in a few months to little media interest. In the meantime, Marine Lt. Col. Scott Ballard reported to the New York Times' Erik Eckholm that:
The main domestic water lines will be fixed within weeks, though broken pipes to houses must be fixed one by one. For now, residents must take containers to plastic water tanks at 15 locations and carry what they can back home. Electricity may take a few months.

How can the destruction of the infrastructure of a city of 300,000 inhabitants, so severe that between 60-75% of structures are demolished and utilities will take months to reconnect, possibly create any sense of peace and security for its residents?

What has happened in Fallujah is a powerful example of the self-defeating insanity of the Bush Administration strategy in its "War Against Terror" – a war which doesn't seem to grasp the difference in terms of international legitimacy between acts of resistance against foreign occupation and acts of terrorism against civilians.

The Administration has no understanding of the most obvious fact – that true peace can only come to a situation in which people are not dealing with the basics of survival, where they have homes, utilities, and a sense of security. Peace has been pushed generations back in Fallujah.

America seems to think it can simply fix this, forgetting that the destruction of an entire city and way of life will leave bitter rubble in people's hearts for years to come. Marines on the ground who spoke to the Los Angeles Times' Tom Perry, "are confident that residents will come to accept that the destruction was necessary to rid Fallujah of the insurgents who had controlled the city."

One wonders if the 300,000 people in Fallujah will see it that way, or whether the far more likely consequence of increased support for the Iraqi resitance will be what the U.S. reaps from what it sowed in the city? Fallujah residents will have literally years to ponder this as they rebuild. We, on the other hand, will have forgotten about it in a few months. Such is exactly the same climate of ignorance that enabled 9/11. Almost 3,000 of our own dead, and yet – still –
the blind lead the naked.

There are flickers of hope. In September 2004, the U.S. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense For Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics published The Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication, [PDF format, 1.8MB]. The report is eye-opening largely due to its author – an agency of the U.S. government – as the report finally grasps the obvious and highlights some very clear lines of cause and effect in the dynamics of the "War Against Terror".

Section 2.3 of the report states:

"What is the Problem? Who Are We Dealing With?"

The information campaign– or as some still would have it, "the war of ideas," or the struggle for "hearts and minds" – is important to every war effort. In this war it is an essential objective, because the larger goals of U.S. strategy depend on separating the vast majority of non-violent Muslims from the radical-militant Islamist-Jihadists. But American efforts have not only failed in this respect: they may also have achieved the opposite of what they intended.

American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies.

  • Muslims do not "hate our freedom," but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.

  • Thus when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy. Moreover, saying that "freedom is the future of the Middle East" is seen as patronizing, suggesting that Arabs are like the enslaved peoples of the old Communist World but Muslims do not feel this way: they feel oppressed, but not enslaved.

  • Furthermore, in the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering. U.S. actions appear in contrast to be motivated by ulterior motives, and deliberately controlled in order to best serve American national interests at the expense of truly Muslim self determination.

  • Therefore, the dramatic narrative since 9/11 has essentially borne out the entire radical Islamist bill of particulars. American actions and the flow of events have elevated the authority of the Jihadi insurgents and tended to ratify their legitimacy among Muslims. Fighting groups portray themselves as the true defenders of an Ummah (the entire Muslim community) invaded and under attack – to broad public support.

  • What was a marginal network is now an Ummah-wide movement of fighting groups. Not only has there been a proliferation of "terrorist" groups: the unifying context of a shared cause creates a sense of affiliation across the many cultural and sectarian boundaries that divide Islam.

  • Finally, Muslims see Americans as strangely narcissistic – namely, that the war is all about us. As the Muslims see it, everything about the war is – for Americans – really no more than an extension of American domestic politics and its great game. This perception is of course necessarily heightened by election-year atmospherics, but nonetheless sustains their impression that when Americans talk to Muslims they are really just talking to themselves.

  • Sadly, whether the White House and Defence Department have read the report or not, the three months that have passed since its publication haven't exactly heralded any sea changes in U.S. policy on the ground in Iraq, or in Palestine for that matter. In the arena of international relations and foreign policy, America continues to do what she is most comfortable doing – talking to herself. Hopefully she will realise her mistake before the inevitable, ugly answer comes in response.

    Related Links
    • Fallujah in Pictures -- Crisis Images publishes daily images of humanitarian emergencies worldwide that would not otherwise reach a broad audience.

      Nigel Parry is a founder of Electronic Iraq and the Electronic Intifada.
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