Sunday, January 01, 2006
In November 2004 I was the last western reporter to leave Falluja before the US Army launched Operation Phantom Fury, an air and land assault aimed at eliminating insurgents from a city that had become a bastion of resistance to coalition rule.
Last weekend [i.e., the weekend just before the Dec. 15 election] I was the first to return independently and it was impossible not to be shocked by the devastation. Huge areas of what were once homes have been flattened. On countless street corners, mountains of rubbish spew plumes of black smoke into the air.
Fields of rubble stretch as far as the eye can see. Here and there children scamper across the ravaged landscape, seeking out larger bricks and rocks for use in laborious rebuilding.
Of the swift reconstruction promised by Baghdad in the wake of the US-led assault, there are only sporadic signs in wealthier areas. Mostly there are women like Rasmiya Mohammed Ali, crouching in the ruins of her home, chipping away with a small hammer at broken breeze blocks salvaged by her sons, aged seven and eight.
“They did not even give us a tent. What can I do but clean and clear these stones so that we can rebuild our home?” said Ali, a mother of five who received only $700 compensation after her home was destroyed during the American onslaught.... By sheer force of arms, the Americans occupied Falluja and put a temporary stop to resistance in the city. As the rest of the world soon discovered, the insurgency continued elsewhere.
Yet what I found in Falluja last week was even more dispiriting. It is not only that promises to reconstruct the city and restore normality have manifestly been broken. The bitter truth is that the actions of US and Iraqi forces have reignited the insurgency. Anger, hate and mistrust of America are deeper than ever.
Mistakes by American soldiers and Iraqi National Guards — drawn mainly from the country’s Shi’ite majority — have alienated residents and encouraged support for insurgents.
...Abu Seif had no way of knowing when he went to bed one night last February that he was about to be seized and accused of killing Kenneth Bigley, the British engineer who was taken hostage and later beheaded.
It was 4am when Abu Seif, a wealthy businessman, was awoken by the sound of American helicopters flying low and close. Moments later US Marines with dogs burst into his house firing percussion grenades of tear gas.
Handcuffed and blindfolded, he was thrown on to a helicopter and eventually found himself being asked why he had murdered Bigley. His answer — “Who’s Bigley?” — apparently enraged his American interrogator, who unsheathed a knife and pressed it against his neck.
Over the next 15 days he was subjected to the interrogation routines that have become notorious in US internment camps. Electric cables were placed on his chained legs and he was subjected to a mock electrocution, he said. He suffered sleep deprivation and disorientation. Headphones were clamped to his ears and played “indescribable, ugly, loud noises”.
His captors soon realised that he had nothing to tell and he was flown to another location, where his handcuffs were removed and an Arabic-speaking woman marine was assigned to prepare him for release.
She brought him good food and let him use her CD player. A few days later he was offered a Koran and a new prayer mat, and was told to walk away without looking back.
The experience so embittered Abu Seif that he now supports the insurgents. “What the Americans have done to Falluja is unacceptable, and if they think it is over they do not know what is coming,” he said.
City officials warned that hardships and detentions were intensifying hostility to the Americans. The Falluja-based Study Centre for Human Rights and Democracy has claimed that 4,000 to 6,000 people were killed during Phantom Fury [i.e. the November 2004 US assault on the city], most of them civilians.
Stoking the anger has been the slow pace of compensation payments, despite the allocation of $490m by Iraq’s interim government last year.
Dr Hafid al-Dulaimi, head of the city’s compensation commission, reported that 36,000 homes and 8,400 shops were destroyed in the US onslaught. Sixty nurseries and schools and 65 mosques and other religious establishments were wrecked. Falluja’s mayor, Dhari abdel Hadi al-Irssan, claims that only 20% of the compensation promised has reached the city.
Dr Hafid al-Dulaimi, head of the city’s compensation commission, reported that 36,000 homes and 8,400 shops were destroyed in the US onslaught.
Sixty nurseries and schools and 65 mosques and other religious establishments were wrecked. Falluja’s mayor, Dhari abdel Hadi al-Irssan, claims that only 20% of the compensation promised has reached the city.
Witnesses spoke of American Marines dumping bodies in the Euphrates just after the offensive and of mass graves where hundreds are allegedly buried.
Last week Abu Salam walked into a makeshift graveyard — once a football stadium — to perform his daily ritual of reciting the Koran’s opening verses for the souls of the dead. He hopes that one of his sons is among the scores of unnamed and unmarked mounds.
Abu Salam has lost four children to US operations in Falluja. Bilal, a five-year-old boy, and Nawal, a three-year-old girl, were killed in the April offensive; two sons, aged 15 and 18, disappeared after Operation Phantom Fury.
“My 18-year-old was a fighter, a resister who stayed to defend his city; there was no shame in that,” Abu Salam said. “He was no terrorist, but I will not hide his participation.”
Abu Salam has no idea how his sons may have died, but he fears their bodies were consigned to the river or one of the mass graves. He has since joined the resistance himself.
“They are treading on our honour,” he said of US forces. “They want to destroy us because we said no to occupation, but by the will of God they will not be able to.”
Jaber concludes by giving brief descriptions of the intense difficulties currently faced by the city's residents. She also describes being present at a meeting there where 11 rebel commanders discussed strategy together, bringing their pistols and semi-automatic rifles into the room with them... All this, in a city that the US forces allegedly "pacificed" (twice) back in 2004 and to whose residents they had promised that a "better life" would follow these pacifications.