Making an example of Falluja

Print edition : January 14, 2005

The Falluja skyline after an offensive by the occupation forces. - PATRICK BAZ/AFP

The U.S. plans to convert Falluja into a huge concentration camp and apply the model to quell resistance in other areas of Iraq.

AMID the winter chill that has descended on the wasteland called Falluja, the Americans are making their first probing attempt to "repopulate" the ruined city. Plans are afoot to see the return of the first batch of Fallujans.

Much of Falluja has been reduced to rubble. In the devastating military campaign, which began on November 8, the United States has used overwhelming force to destroy the congested city of 300,000. The latest high-technology weapons, including F-16 fighter jets, Cobra and Apache helicopters and AC-130 gunships, were used during a sustained aerial assault. Eyewitnesses said that the AC-130 planes destroyed buildings, block after block, within minutes.

On the ground, scores of Abram tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and artillery guns rained heavy fire, flattening large parts of the city. The U.S. decision to use disproportionate force to "pacify" a relatively small number of resistance fighters, who were armed only with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, has already raised an international outcry. The virtual scorched earth campaign, which has been compared to the Hue operation in Vietnam, has raised some tough questions about the real intentions of the Americans in Falluja.

The storming of the city, as expected, has resulted in a huge exodus of people. Iraqi aid groups estimate that about 210,600 people have fled the city after the invasion began. At least 120,000 of them are in the nearby town of Amiriyah. About 35,000 people left for Baghdad. In the Iraqi capital, tented townships have emerged in several locations, including the sprawling Baghdad university campus. Refugees who fled the fighting narrate horrific tales of systematic slaughter and destruction.

Not surprisingly, the return of the refugees to the city has been delayed more than once - apparently owing to the resistance the invading forces encountered, despite the hasty declaration of victory by U.S. commanders. Apart from the fighting, there is suspicion that Falluja is being kept out of public view for other reasons. Sociologists such as Professor Michael Schwartz at the State University of New York apprehend that the delay is because the U.S. needs more time to "prettify" the disfigured city under an unprecedented cover-up operation. Suspicions about the intentions of the U.S. have been strengthened by the decision to persist with a blackout of all independent reporting from Falluja.

Members of independent organisations such as the Iraqi Red Crescent Society have also been prevented from moving independently, on grounds of security. In fact, the society was ordered to close down its Falluja office on December 5. U.S. commanders explained that the temporary closure was necessary on grounds of safety as U.S. forces intended to conduct house-to-house raids in the neighbourhood. A team of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which was taken on a "conducted tour" of a Falluja locality on December 9, also returned dissatisfied. Ahmed Rawhi, a spokesman of the ICRC said that the movement of the delegation had been limited because of a curfew. Besides, the team could not visit a one-time potato chip factory, where hundreds of bodies of people the Americans have described as "insurgents" have been stored. The Associated Press reported that dozens of bodies in black bags remained in the factory, which had an antiquated refrigeration system and served as a makeshift mortuary. U.S. officials, the report added, acknowledged that some of the bodies in the warehouse were too decomposed to be identified.

ACCORDING to the estimates of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, more than 6,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in the fighting. Mohammad Al Nuri, the spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars, a powerful Sunni organisation, described the Falluja operation as a "human disaster". "Bodies can be seen everywhere and people were crying when receiving food parcels," he said.

Life becomes harsh in the refugee camp, particularly after the winter chill comes in.-MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP

According to a recent U.S. announcement, the project to repopulate Falluja would begin on December 24. But the proposed effort has already raised a storm as the Americans appear intent on turning the city into a giant prison with the trappings of a Nazi-style concentration camp. Lieutenant-General John F. Sattler, commander of the Marines in Iraq, has revealed the first outlines of the Falluja plan. He pointed out that sand berms or earth mounds would block all entrances to the city except five. Checkpoints manned by Americans or Iraqi forces would be established around all the remaining exit and entry points. Cars would not be allowed inside Falluja as resistance fighters have used car bombs to deadly effect. Those entering the city would be photographed and subjected to an iris scan in order to record their identity in a database. Residents would be issued identity cards bearing their names and addresses and these should be worn as badges. The system resembles the "pass laws" enforced in South Africa by the white regime.

Cars will not be allowed to be kept in the city. Residents would be packed in buses and taken inside. It is not yet clear how people would commute locally. While it is apparent that the closures will be used to prevent the transfer of weapons to Falluja, it is possible that they are used for other purposes as well. For instance, it is apprehended that the Americans could restrict free movement of ambulances, which they suspect have been used to ferry weapons in the past. The American disposition towards journalists and aid workers who wish to visit the city also falls in the grey zone.

Clerics have played a major role in binding the people in Falluja, which is described as the city of mosques. But under the new restrictive American guidelines, it is unlikely that they will be allowed to move freely or continue to play an influential role.

With "reconstruction" emerging as the main activity, only those whom the U.S. authorities certify, after an intelligence vetting, as not having links with the guerillas will be allowed to work. In other words, the Americans would decide which one of the Fallujans would have a right to a livelihood. Workers would be organised under military-style battalions, which would be monitored constantly.

According to the Falluja plan, residents are to be subjected to round-the-clock surveillance, with the objective of keeping the city sanitised of resistance fighters. The project resembles the Strategic Hamlet programme that was introduced in Vietnam in 1962. Based on a British counterinsurgency programme used in Malaya from 1948 to 1960, the U.S. turned villages into concentration camps, confined within walls and patrolled by armed guards. According to figures compiled by the U.S., 39 per cent of the South Vietnamese population was housed in these restrictive 4,077 hamlets. As expected, the programme turned out to be a colossal failure. The American effort to "atomise" and control Fallujan society, which revolves around the mosque is also expected to fail. Schwartz points out: "The history of the Iraq war thus far, and the history of guerilla wars in general, suggest that there will simply be a new round of struggle, and that carefully laid military plans will begin to disintegrate with the very first arrivals."

As the Falluja campaign comes under greater international scrutiny, the motive of the invasion has received considerable attention. There are few people who believe in the American story that troops stormed the city to smash the nucleus of the resistance headed by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab Al Zarqawi.

A handful of independent journalists, who visited Falluja prior to the November invasion, paint a very different picture. From their impressions, it appears that the command of the resistance was not with foreign fighters but centred around two mosques: Saad ibn Abi Wakkas, which was run by Imam Abdullah Al Janabi, and Al Hadra Al Mohammadiya, where Imam Dhafer Al Ubedi was in charge. Imam Janabi was a key figure as he controlled the Mujahideen Shura, which, apart from clerics, included resistance leaders and tribal chiefs. Imam Ubedi, on his part, was in charge of the political Shura, over which Sheikh Tarlub Abdel Karim Al Alusi presided. Sheikh Tarlub was the de facto political chief of the resistance fighters in Falluja. He was recently quoted a saying that nearly 80 per cent of Falluja's young people had joined the guerilla ranks. Though he acknowledged that there were around 1,500 foreign fighters, he insisted that they neither belonged to Al Qaeda nor were in charge of the resistance.

DAHR JAMAIL, a Baghdad-based freelance journalist who has interviewed extensively refugees from the city, seems to confirm the impression that foreign fighters were not the focus of attention inside the city. Jamail's interview with a 40-year-old Fallujan refugee, Khalil, on the Baghdad University campus is revealing. Khalil said: "When the Americans come to our city we refuse to accept any foreigner coming to invade us. We accept the Iraqi National Guards but not the Americans. Nobody has seen any [Abu Musab Al] Zarqawi". Abu Hammad, another refugee, points out: "The people in Falluja are only Fallujans. [Interim Prime Minister] Iyad Allawi was a lying when he said there were foreign fighters there."

Most Iraqis believe that the attack on Falluja was based on vendetta, following the brutal killing in April of four "security contractors" in the city. Soon after the killings, U.S. marines attacked Falluja.

During the April incursion, nearly 1,000 Iraqis were killed, two thirds of them civilians, mostly women and children. The operation, however, ended in a fiasco and the U.S. beat a humiliating retreat.

In war-ravaged Falluja, a body being carried past U.S. Marines.-PATRICK BAZ/AFP

Despite the tragic loss of lives, Fallujans celebrated their victory enthusiastically. Nir Rosen, a journalist who was present in Falluja at that time described the mood of jubilation in an article in the Asia Times Online. "On May 11, one day after the U.S. Marines conducted their last patrol into Falluja following their decision to pull back and hand over to a Falluja Brigade after a bloody month-long siege, hundreds of dignitaries gathered under a long tent in the city 50 kilometres west of Baghdad for a poetry celebration organised by the National Front of Iraqi Intellectuals.

"It was staged in front of the unfinished Rahma Hospital, and a podium was placed on top of the rough grey stairs at the hospital's entrance, with the front's emblem and Iraqi flags draped on the podium. Tall columns and arches framed the background. Graffiti on the walls of the hospital read, `Long live the Mujahideen and the loved ones of Mohammed', `Victory is Falluja's and defeat for the infidel America' and `the Falluja martyrs are the lights for the way to the complete liberation of Iraq'.

"Clerics resplendent in their turbans, tribal leaders wearing white kafiyas or headscarves, businessmen, military and police officers and men in Baathist-style matching solid-colour open-collar shirts and pants called `safari suits' sat on plastic chairs under a long tent shading them from the noonday sun. Banners hung on the sides of the tent and walls of the hospital made clear the sentiments of the moment: `All of Falluja's neighbourhoods bear witness to its heroism, steadfastness and virtue', `The stand of Falluja is the truest expression of the Iraqi identity', `Falluja, castle of steadfastness and pride' and `The martyrs of Falluja, Najaf, Kufa and Basra are the pole of the flag that says God is great'."

The November invasion was therefore the second attempt to subdue Falluja. Having caused unbelievable devastation, the U.S. is talking now about repeating the Falluja "model" elsewhere. If that be the case, there could be more failed attempts to duplicate the Falluja "experiment" in other resistance strongholds of Iraq.

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