Covering Fallujah

The Department of Defense seems continually faced with the difficulty of waging a war upon a population while maintaining that it is doing so on behalf of that population. But it is fortunate not to face this difficulty alone. A vast literature has been developed and deployed to effectively manage and promote its excursions in language that its intellectuals can contribute to and the public can repeat. After the US invasion of South Vietnam, one such literature came in the development of “counterinsurgency” techniques that discussed ways to keep like states “independent” where local populations threatened with participation in their government. When “counterinsurgency” began to bear an unfortunate association with the deaths of millions against whom it had been mobilized, talk increasingly became of “foreign internal defense” and in recent years, more benign measures of “internal security and stability” to justify interventions abroad.

In Iraq, where “security” and “stability” have thus far been insufficient to describe the US occupation, the language of “counterinsurgency” has been redeployed. During the ongoing bombardment and invasion of Fallujah of the past several days, the major US media have proved able to frame the parameters of discussion accordingly. Despite that as recently defined by a US government funded organization, “insurgency”—“a small, ideological armed group which gradually encroaches on a state to win over its people and take its territory”(1)—might be have been mistaken for those that bombed and invaded the city rather than Iraqis within it, and that Mr. Rumsfeld’s statement while US soldiers sieged Fallujah that “no government can allow terrorists and foreign fighters to use its soil to attack its people and to attack its government, and to intimidate the Iraqi people”(2) might have been mistaken for irony, any such errors were avoided. Rather, our major media have been unanimous in explaining the invasion of Fallujah as the New York Times did: “With only three months to go until the country’s first democratic elections, American and Iraqi officials are grasping for any tool at their command to bring the insurgency under control.”(3) No matter that a mass boycott of elections appears likely as a response, and has even been widely reported—this stated objective of the invasion remains totally unquestioned. With the exception of a single news article, moreover, an offer for peace contingent on the “ambitious demand” that US soldiers remain on base during an Iraqi election day went entirely unreported.(4)

Neither has discussion entered the unspeakable territory of previous US interventions in Fallujah. No mention that armed resistance in Fallujah developed only after the US military opened fire on crowd of civilians, killing seventeen and injuring some seventy more,(5) in what the former described as “appropriate action”(6)—perhaps because the “collateral damage estimate was within permissible limits,” a justification given for a later bombardment of the city that killed twenty.(7) Similarly absent from the current military campaign has been any discussion of the precedent set by the most recent US attacks on Fallujah in April. A New York Times article devoted to the US takeover of the Fallujah General Hospital(8) (which like all major US coverage, was uninterested in the leveling of another Fallujah hospital two days prior(9)), for instance, said only that the hospital has been “considered a refuge for insurgents and a center of propaganda against allied forces” without bringing to light the kernel of such propaganda: doctor’s reports of US military use of cluster bombs, shooting of ambulances and civilians, and related war crimes.(10) Absent also is the notion that a US military takeover of an Iraqi hospital may itself be troubling to Sadiq Zoman and others disappointed with declining standards in US healthcare.(11)

Attention instead has been directed to more promising aspects of the invasion. As a New York Times caption to a photo of a soldier poised to open fire noted on November 9, “Protecting the Islamic cultural center in Falluja was one the marines’ objectives today.”(12) In the same article, in what has been typical of major US coverage, emphasis was given to the Iraqi contributions to the assault: “‘For cultural reasons, we think it is much better for the Iraqis to search the mosques,’ General Metz said in Iraq, adding that Iraqi forces had found a large number of weapons inside a mosque in the city.’” Indeed, such contributions—in the form of local military and paramilitary groups created and sustained by the US government—have been vital to US military objectives overseas. Much as Iraqi soldiers have been deployed by the US military, Iraqi voices been deployed by the US media as implicit support of the invasion. The same article from the New York Times describes what would seem to be an Iraqi-led action: “In Baghdad on Monday, Dr. Allawi announced that he had given the go-ahead for the operation. ‘I have given my authority to the multinational forces,’ he said at a news conference inside the fortified compound housing the headquarters of the interim Iraqi government. ‘We are determined to clean Falluja of terrorists.’” Another New York Times article discusses the ambivalence of Iraqi response to the siege of Fallujah within a frame that opens with apparent dissent (“the country’s most prominent Sunni political party said today that it was withdrawing from the interim Iraqi government”) and closes with an Iraqi answer (“‘Nobody is in favor of using force, but the problem is you need sovereignty over all the parts of Iraq,’ [Mr. Hassani] said. ‘I haven’t heard any party come up with a single suggestion that we can solve the problems in these places without using force’”).(13)

Dahr Jamail’s reports, in contrast, have shown Iraqi response to be anything but ambivalent. “‘The people of Falluja have the right to fight for their city, because if the Americans are invading their city, they have to defend it,’ stated Nisan al-Samarra’i, a 55 year-old merchant in the Karrada district of Baghdad,” typifying much that has been said in Baghdad.(14) Of conditions in Fallujah, Dahr writes also that “other horrendous reports continue to emerge from Fallujah…An Iraqi doctor in the city, speaking on condition of anonymity to Al-Quds Press, said, ‘The US troops have sprayed chemical and nerve gases on resistance fighters, turning them hysteric in a heartbreaking scene.’ A report by resistance fighters in the Golan area of Fallujah to Al-Quds said, ‘Some Fallujah residents have been further burnt beyond treatment by poisonous gases.’ Adding credibility to the claims, the US admitted last August of having used napalm in Iraq during the initial invasion of the country, which is an internationally-banned weapon.”(15) Among those that Dahr has interviewed was Ahmed Abdulla, a 21 year-old student whose father has been denied exit from Fallujah by the US army like all other civilian men of “fighting age,” who described that “shops had even been bombed; bodies with arms and legs lying near them were tossed about on the sidewalks in places just after the bombs fell”—to which he added, “I still can’t get the smell of dead bodies to leave me.”(16) The top marine commander in Iraq said today, perhaps in response, that “we’re sweeping through the city now. We’re clearing out pockets of resistance.”(17) He remarked to the New York Times, newspaper of record, that “it ought to go down in the history books.” History, it seems, is impeded by little more than the bodies of liberated Iraqis at its feet.

Omar Khan can be reached at

(1) Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, “Humanitarian Agencies and Coalition Counter-Insurgency,” Hugo Slim, July 2004.

(2) U.S. Department of Defense Press Briefing, Monday, November 8, 2004, 2:02 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

(3) “U.S. Forces Begin Moving Into Falluja,” Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Robert Worth, November 7, 2004.

(4) “Battle Near, Iraqi Sunnis Make Offer,” Washington Post, Karl Vick, November 6, 2004.

(5) A Human Rights Watch ballistics report conducted thereafter could find “no compelling evidence” that any guns had been fired upon US soldiers.

(6) San Francisco Gate, November 24, 2003.

(7) “US Strike in Fallujah Kills 20,” Washington Post, Edward Cody, June 20, 2004.

(8) ”Early Target of Offensive Is a Hospital,” The New York Times, Richard Oppel Jr., November 8, 2004.

(9) “US strikes raze Falluja hospital,” BBC News, November 6, 2004.

(10) See Dahr’s “Atrocities Continue to Emerge from the rubble of Fallujah,” May 11, 2004.

(11) “Detained, Bludgeoned and Electrocuted into a Coma,” January 7, 2004.

(12) “American Forces Reach Center of Falluja Amid Fierce Fighting,” New York Times, Dexter Filkins and James Glanza, November 9, 2004.

(13) “Falluja Assault Roils Iraqi Politics,” New York Times, Edward Wong, November 9, 2004.

(14) “Condemnation of Falluja Siege in Baghdad as Violence Escalates across Iraq,” Inter Press Service, Dahr Jamail, November 7.

(15) “As Slaughter Continues in Fallujah, Anger Swells in Baghdad,” Open Democracy, Dahr Jamail, November 11.

(16) “The Ghosts of Fallujah Emerge,” Sunday Morning Herald, Dahr Jamail, November 12.

(17) “Insurgents Routed in Falluja; Smaller Bands Still Resist,” New York Times, Dexter Filkins and Robert F. Worth, November 14, 2004.

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