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Unpunished US Killings Spark Iraqi Resistance

JNV Anti-War Briefing 47
6 August 2003


‘George W Bush will spend nearly $300 million trying to get re-elected in 2004, but nothing he buys will come close, in sheer political capital, to what he deposited in his campaign bank last week—the perfect presidential photo-op. The scene, of Bush landing aboard an aircraft carrier in a Navy jet and then strutting across the deck outfitted in a jump suit, “will be the moment of George W. Bush’s presidency,” predicts Mike Deaver, the master imagemaker to Ronald Reagan.’ The USS Abraham Lincoln was positioned ‘to obscure any view of the coastline and ensure a picture-perfect backdrop.’ (Time magazine, 12 May 2003, p. 13)

Mr Bush said, ‘Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.’ He did not say the war was officially over, because ‘under the Geneva Conventions, once war is declared over, the victorious army must release prisoners-of-war and halt operations targeting specific leaders.’ (BBC News Online, 2 May 2003)

‘Mr Rumsfeld cautioned yesterday that “we’re still at war”, and it would not be possible to reduce the American military presence any time soon.’ (Guardian, 14 July 2003) However, the US Defense Secretary also said that characterizing the attacks as a guerrilla war would be ‘a misunderstanding and a miscommunication’. (CNN Online, 1 July 2003)

General John Abizaid, the commander of US forces in Iraq, publicly disagreed a few weeks later, saying the attacks on US soldiers ‘were part of an increasingly organised “guerrilla-type campaign”. “It’s low-intensity conflict in our doctrinal terms, but it’s war however you describe it.” ’ (Guardian, 17 July 2003)

‘At least 52 US soldiers have been killed by hostile fire since the war was declared over on 1 May.’ (‘Timeline: US losses in Iraq’, BBC News Online, 31 July 2003)

It is difficult to estimate the Iraqi death toll in this ‘guerrilla-type war’; one reason is that no media outlet is keeping track of the cumulative total. To take one suggestive indicator, however, in the second week of June 2003, US forces mounted their first major operation against the Sunni resistance. Operation Peninsula Strike involved 4,000 troops scouring an area around the Tigris river near the town of Balad. In the first two months after the war, over 40 US soldiers had been killed in attacks, or died in accidents. In the first two days of Operation Peninsula Strike, US occupation forces reportedly killed 97 Iraqis. (Guardian, 14 June 2003, p. 2)


Another difficulty in compiling an accurate estimate of Iraqi deaths is that, as in Vietnam, US ‘body counts’ are unreliable. On 13 June, 27 Iraqis were reported killed after a failed ambush on a group of US Abrams M1 tanks outside Balad city. Four attackers were reportedly killed immediately, and a helicopter gunship and armoured vehicles ‘pursued the enemy personnel’, killing 23 more Iraqis according to the official US version of events.

British journalist Patrick Cockburn reported, ‘It is not clear how many Iraqi casualties really were fighters. In country areas, Iraqi civilians invariably own weapons, which may include rocket-propelled grenade launchers and machine-guns. “A man in Iraq does not think he is really a man unless he has a gun, the bigger the better,” said one Iraqi observer.’ Mr Cockburn remarks, ‘One explanation for American aggression is that their commanders see the possession of arms as hostility to the occupation. But Iraqi farmers are always armed, usually with AK-47 machine guns.’ (Independent on Sunday, 15 June 2003, p. 19)

A few days later, it was admitted that actually only seven men were killed in this incident, and five of those were apparently innocent farmers. (Guardian, 16 June 2003, p. 10)

In summary: precise statistics are not available, but it is clear firstly that Iraqi guerrillas are being killed in much larger numbers than US occupation forces (generally in the course of ambushes on US personnel), and secondly that armed non-combatant civilians are also being killed by US soldiers.

‘[T]he frequency of attacks has declined in the area northwest of Baghdad dominated by Iraq’s Sunni minority, long a base of support for Hussein. In this triangle-shaped region—delineated by Baghdad, Tikrit to the north and the towns of Fallujah and Ramadi to the west—attacks on U.S. forces have dropped by half since mid-June, military officers reported.’ (Washington Post, 28 July 2003, p. A01) Earlier, insurgents were ‘carrying out attacks on the US occupation forces at a rate of 12 a day.’ (Guardian, 17 July 2003)

One major reason for the decline in attacks is that the US forces have finally accepted some responsibility for the 28 April massacre in Falluja. After the fall of the regime, local citizens took over the running of this western town. US forces barged in and occupied the local school as a military base, without consultation. During a demonstration on the evening of 28 April, nearly three weeks after the fall of the regime, US soldiers fired on the crowd outside the school, killing 13 civilians immediately.

The official US account was that 25 armed civilians, mixed in with the crowd and also positioned on nearby rooftops, fired on the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne, leading to a ‘fire-fight’. (BBC News Online, 29 April 2003)

Phil Reeves, a reporter for the Independent on Sunday, conducted a careful independent investigation and concluded that the official story was a ‘highly implausible version of events’. Witnesses interviewed by Mr Reeves ‘stated that there was some shooting in the air in the general vicinity, but it was nowhere near the crowd.’ US Lieutenant Colonel Eric Nantz admitted that the bloodshed occurred after ‘celebratory firing’, but he claimed that the firing came from the crowd. (BBC News Online, 29 April 2003)

However, all the witnesses Phil Reeves could find agreed that there was no ‘fire-fight’ nor any shooting at the school, and that the crowd had no guns. The Independent journalist observed:

The evidence at the scene overwhelmingly supports this. Al-Ka’at primary and secondary school is a yellow concrete building about the length and height of seven terraced houses located in a walled compound. The soldiers fired at people gathered below them. There are no bullet marks on the facade of the school or the perimeter wall in front of it. The top floors of the houses directly opposite, from where the troops say they were fired on, also appear unmarked. Their upper windows are intact. (Independent on Sunday, 4 May 2003, p. 17)

There were bullet holes in an upper window, ‘but they were on another side of the school building.’ (Independent, 30 April 2003, p. 2) The Telegraph’s report of the bullet holes failed to mention this fact. (p. 10)

Dr Ahmed Ghanim al-Ali told reporters at Falluja Hospital, ‘Medical crews were shot by [US] soldiers when they tried to get to the injured people.’ (Mirror, 30 April 2003, p. 11)

The US failed to accept that those killed in the massacre were unarmed; failed to pay compensation to the relatives of the dead or to the injured; and failed to investigate the massacre and punish those responsible. The result was predictable. After the massacre, Falluja became the most dangerous place in Iraq for US occupation forces. The headmaster of the school, who had lost three teenage pupils in the massacre, told Phil Reeves calmly that he was willing to die as a ‘martyr’ to take his revenge against the US troops. (Independent, 30 April 2003, p. 2)

The 28 April massacre was soon being airbrushed out of history. Reporting from Falluja on a US operation on 16 June 2003, the Telegraph (p. 10), the Guardian (p. 10), and the FT (p. 6) all referred to recent attacks on US soldiers in the town, and local hostility, without mentioning the massacre.

The introduction of a new US brigade in June allowed the occupation forces to stage a climbdown. First: a withdrawal of US forces from the town. (Washington Post, 12 July 2003, p. A11) Secondly, US Army officers ‘delivered formal apologies to local tribal sheiks and paid blood money for every dead and injured person deemed not to be a combatant... $1,500 for a death and $500 for an injury... Officers have [also] ordered soldiers to knock on doors before conducting most residential searches. They have also permitted the mayor to field a 75-member armed militia and doled out nearly $2 million on municipal improvements instead of waiting for private American contractors to arrive.’ (Washington Post, 29 July 2003, p. A01)

‘When the 2nd Brigade arrived, the prevailing view among U.S. commanders was that the attacks were being conducted almost exclusively by Hussein loyalists who had the support of other residents... Over time, the brigade’s officers came to realize Fallujah was more traditional than Baathist. Much of the animosity toward U.S. forces was driven by perceived slights of tribal and religious traditions. Several people here said attempts to search women prompted so much humiliation for male relatives that some of them joined the mobs throwing rocks and shooting at U.S. convoys.’ (WP, 29 July)

It seems that much of the resistance is revenge for unpunished and uncompensated US killings, not a Saddamist conspiracy.

[For the full story of the Falluja massacre, and more on the Sunni resistance, please see Regime Unchanged by Milan Rai (Pluto, September 2003).]

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