Falluja: The BBC’s Paul Wood covers up US war crimes
by Ian Sinclair
1 December 2014
“The truth”, US Historian Howard Zinn once wrote, “is so often the reverse of what has been told us by our culture that we cannot turn our heads far enough around to see it.”
A recent article by the BBC’s Paul Wood titled Iraq’s Hardest Fight: The US Battle For Falluja 2004 perfectly illustrates Zinn’s truism. Wood, an award-winning foreign correspondent, was writing about the tenth anniversary of the US assault on Falluja, when he had been embedded with US Marines attacking the Iraqi city.
For Wood the story begins on 31 March 2004, when four US private security contractors were ambushed in the centre of the city, killed, burned and strung up from a bridge. In response the US launched their first attack in April 2004, killing approximately 800 people, including around 300 women and children, before they were ordered to pull back in the face of protests across Iraq and the world. What Wood doesn’t mention is tensions in the city had been running high since April 2003 when US soldiers killed 17 protestors during a demonstration about US soldiers being stationed in a school. In the days before the lynching of the private security contractors the US military had conducted a “sweep” through the city. During this operation, The Observer noted at least six Iraqi civilians were killed, including an 11-year old boy.
Speaking about the aftermath of the first US attack, Wood repeats the official narrative of the US military, noting “Falluja became a safe haven for al-Qaeda”. In contrast, Fadhil Badrani, an Iraqi journalist and resident of Falluja who reported regularly for Reuters, wrote an article for the BBC News website in which he noted “I am not aware of any foreign fighters in Falluja.”
Turning to the second US assault in November 2004, Wood makes the most audacious and inaccurate statement I’ve ever seen made by a professional journalist: “Most of the people had left Falluja… the image of a city packed with non-combatants being pounded with artillery and white phosphorus was wrong.”
In reality, when the US attack began on 8 November 2004 the American Forces Press Service reported that out of a total population of 300,000 “officials estimate that between 50,000 and 60,000 people are left in the city”. According to the New York Times, just before the US forces moved into Falluja “heavy artillery could be heard pounding positions in or near the city every few minutes. An entire apartment complex was ground to rubble. A train station was obliterated in a hail of 2,000-pound bombs [delivered from US warplanes].” The Washington Post reported the US military used white phosphorus during the fighting, a fact confirmed by a 2005 edition of Field Artillery magazine, the official publication of the United States Army Field Artillery Corps.
While Wood’s words are a despicable example of a journalist echoing US propaganda, arguably it is what he chooses not to mention that is most shocking.
Contemporary news reports and subsequent commentary confirm the US committed a number of war crimes in Falluja. Prior to the attack, the Washington Post reported that US forces cut off Falluja’s water and electricity supply. This contravened the Geneva Conventions which states the “starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited” and led to predictable results. Rasoul Ibrahim, who fled the fighting, said “there’s no water. People are drinking dirty water. Children are dying.”
The New York Times reported that within an hour of the start of the ground attack, US troops seized the Fallujah General Hospital: “Patients and hospital employees were rushed out of rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs”. Quoting an Iraqi doctor, The Independent reported a US air strike destroyed an emergency clinic killing 20 doctors. The Geneva Conventions state that medical establishments “may in no circumstances be the object of attack, but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict.”
US forces blocked aid convoys from reaching Falluja, only letting them enter after five days of fighting. “From a humanitarian point of view, it is a disaster, there is no other way to describe it,” Firdoos al-Ubaidi, from the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, said on 10 November 2004. “We have asked for permission from the Americans to go into the city and help the people there but we haven’t heard anything back from them.” At the same time they were stopping help getting to the city, US forces were preventing military aged males from leaving. “Hundreds of men trying to flee the assault on Fallujah have been turned back by US troops following orders to allow only women, children and the elderly to leave”, the Associated Press reported. James Ross, Senior Legal Advisor to Human Rights Watch, said that returning unarmed men to the war zone “would be a war crime.”
Those unable to escape Falluja had to contend with US forces implementing “a strict night-time shoot-to-kill curfew” with “anyone spotted in the soldiers’ night vision sights… shot”, according to The Times. Patrick Cockburn, the Independent’s veteran Middle East correspondent: “US commanders largely treated Fallujah as a free-fire zone to try to reduce casualties among their own troops.”
The outcome of this unrestrained violence was 800 dead in the first week of fighting, according to one Red Cross official. In January 2005, the director of the main hospital told the UN Integrated Regional Information Network that 700 bodies – including 550 women and children – had been recovered from just a third of the city’s neighbourhoods. Local authorities said about 60 percent of all houses in the city were totally destroyed or seriously damaged while the Falluja Compensation Committee reported that 9,000 shops, 65 mosques, 60 schools and a heritage library had been demolished. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced.
In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War US academic Edward Herman penned his seminal essay The Banality Of Evil about the normalisation of “ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts”. According to Herman “there is usually a division of labour in doing and rationalising the unthinkable, with the direct brutalising and killing done by one set of individuals”, while “it is the function of the experts, and the mainstream media, to normalise the unthinkable for the general public.”
We in the West should be deeply ashamed and angry about what our armed forces did to Falluja in 2004 – described as “our Guernica” by The Guardian’s Jonathan Steele and independent journalist Dahr Jamail. Instead what we get is Wood’s embedded puff piece complete with a sub-heading referring to when “US troops and coalition forces fought their deadliest battle since the Vietnam War” (my emphasis added).
If Emily Thornberry MP has to step down form the shadow cabinet for tweeting a photo of a house decked out with English flags, then Wood should definitely go for his callous whitewashing of US war crimes in Iraq.
Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He tweets @IanJSinclair.