by Gerry Foley
As was generally expected, the long prepared massive U.S. military assault on Falluja ignited a series of explosions throughout the predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq, including the Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad, which belied the claims of U.S. military commanders that they had crushed the head of the insurgency.
About 10,000 troops were assigned to the destruction of Falluja. The winding down of the major military operation in Falluja was followed almost immediately by the deployment of 2500 troops to Mosul in the north, and on Nov. 22, a reported 5000 troops were sent to the so-called Triangle of Death, south of Baghdad to open a major new offensive there.
The latter is a mixed Sunni and Shiite area on the road from Baghdad to the Shiite holy cities in southern Iraq. There was also major fighting in the predominately Sunni cities of Baquba and Ramadi in the first two weeks of November.
The U.S. commanders had made it clear before they launched the invasion of Falluja that they would be ruthless. Their record left no reason for doubt on that score.
The British medical magazine Lancet has estimated that U.S. military operations in Iraq since the invasion in March of 2003 have already claimed the lives of at least 100,000 Iraqis. Associated Press reported Nov. 23 that a Norwegian foundation had found that since the U.S. invasion, the percentage of malnourished children in Iraq had nearly doubled, from 4 percent to 7.7 percent.
Aerial bombardment of Falluja prior to the assault and the U.S. proclamation that it intended to smash the rebels there at any cost clearly drove most of the population out of the city before the assault. But many civilians remained to protect their homes—at least 10 percent according to the usual estimates in the international press. For a city the size of Falluja, that would amount to between 20,000 and 30,000 people.
There is no available accounting of the number of civilians killed in the siege of Falluja. But a BBC reporter in the city during the assault cited cases of wounded children who died after their U.S. assailants had deliberately eliminated any possibility for medical assistance for the wounded.
The invasion opened with the seizure of the main hospital by U.S. forces and then the destruction of the only clinic., where the doctors reported that five persons undergoing treatment were killed. The elimination of the medical centers was clearly designed to prevent any accounting of the civilian casualties.
In a Nov. 19 dispatch, CNN reported: “A 32-year-old taxi driver said the civilians who stayed behind, not the insurgents, suffered. ’[The Americans] say that they will pay us money to repair our homes,’ he said. ‘How will they pay for someone’s killed brother or mother?’”
In its Nov. 24 issue, the British Independent cited the testimony of residents who had managed to flee the city after the fighting died down. “They said, in interviews with The Independent, that as well as deaths from bombs and artillery shells, a large number of people including children were killed by American snipers. U.S. forces refused repeated calls for medical aid for injured civilians, they said.”
Reporters who entered the city reported that dead bodies were lying everywhere, in sufficient numbers to poison the air and to constitute a major health hazard. It is obvious that there is never going to be any identification of these bodies. They are being hastily dumped into mass graves as soon as possible.
The U.S. commanders claim that they killed up to 2000 insurgents. On the basis of past experience, the likelihood is that at least half of the dead are civilians.
The British Guardian reported Nov. 17 during the siege of Falluja: “The International Red Cross has made an unprecedented appeal for an end to human rights abuses in Iraq, saying it is ‘deeply concerned’ at the impact of the fighting in the country and at apparent failures by all sides in the conflict to respect humanitarian laws.”
While a conservative institution like the International Red Cross had to appear neutral, it had to be primarily concerned about the human rights violations committed by the U.S. military and its allies, since they were on a qualitatively larger scale than any abuses the different groups involved in the insurgency might have committed.
As for the of the U.S. military’s disregard of international law, the summary execution of a wounded fighter caught by a cameraman imbedded with a U.S. unit is undoubtedly only the tip of the iceberg.
If the International Red Cross officials were shocked by the carnage in Falluja, it is easy to imagine the feelings of the Arab public. Al Jazeera, the leading Arab nationalist TV channel, carried a cartoon comparing the destruction of Falluja to the Israeli ravaging of Jenin. The excerpts from the Arab press regularly published by the BBC web site almost universally condemned the U.S. operation, even Saudi Arabian newspapers. Obviously the holocaust of Falluja has fanned the flames of hatred of U.S. imperialism throughout the region.
Repression by Allawi government
As the clashes between the U.S. forces and their allies and Iraqi insurgents spread, the campaign of the occupation army and the U.S.-imposed government inevitably started to turn into a general repressive clampdown.
The Allawi government announced that it was going to begin arresting Muslim clerics who expressed sympathy with the insurrection. On Nov. 18, the Iraqi National Guard raided the Abu Hanifa Mosque in a Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad and got into a clash with the crowd of worshipers. The attack cost four people their lives, three of the crowd and one Iraqi guardsman.
Also, the Allawi government seems to be renewing its repression against the movement of the rebel Shiite clergyman Moqtada Al Sadr. A Nov. 23 AP dispatch reported: “Smeisim [a spokesman for Al Sadr] said the government has broken a promise in the August agreement not to arrest members of Al Sadr’s movement and to release most of them from detention.
“’The government, however, started pursuing them and their numbers in prisons have doubled,” Smeisim said. ‘Iraqi police arrested 160 Al Sadr loyalists in Najaf four days ago.’”
In addition to the Allawi government’s official repressive moves, two leading Sunni clerics were assassinated at the end of November. These incidents could be a new indication that the U.S. authorities or their local allies are building a parallel police operation to remove political opponents and possibly to fan the flames of religious conflicts.
Such undercover forces, called “countergangs” by Major General Frank Kitson, the leading British military expert on counterinsurgency warfare, have constituted a pattern in imperialist or imperialist-sponsored repression of major rebel movements. One of the first glaring examples of “countergangs” were the Guatamalan death squadrons that became active after the CIA-engineered invasion and uprising that toppled the Arbenz government in the 1950s.
In the Iraq situation, the first indication that such groups might be operating was the kidnapping several months ago of an Iranian diplomat, allegedly in reprisal for Iranian support for some rebel groups. Spokespersons for the Association of Muslim Scholars have raised the possibility that the assassinations were provocations.
Religious and national divisions
Conflict focused on the siege of Falluja has exposed the major political weakness of the opposition to the U.S. occupation and the puppet government it is trying to install—that is, the religious and national rifts that divide it, between Shiite and Sunni and Arab and Kurd.
The biggest flare-up of fighting during the Falluja offensive, was touched off by the attacks of insurgents in Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, where the rebels overran a number of police stations and set up their own check points and patrols. But in this ethnically mixed city, the rebels attacked not only the strong points of the interim government put in office by the U.S. occupation authorities but the headquarters of the Kurdish parties.
When the local police force collapsed, apparently out of unwillingness to fight the insurgents, the government of the province called on the Kurdish militias to combat the guerrillas. The conflict quickly threatened to become a civil war between Kurds and Arabs.
In the assault on Falluja and the offensives against rebels elsewhere in the predominately Sunni area, the U.S. military has used Iraqi auxiliaries. It is now boasting that these forces demonstrated some reliability. But Western reporters have noticed that they generally come from the communities that have historic conflicts with the Sunni Arabs.
For example, Los Angeles Times correspondent Patrick J. McDonnel reported in a Nov. 23 dispatch from Falluja: “Most Iraqi troops here appear to be either Shiite Muslims or Kurds. Both groups are rivals of the minority Sunni Muslim Arabs who have long dominated Iraq and constitute the majority of Falluja’s population.”
The French newspaper of record, Le Monde, noted that although the latest siege of Falluja provoked insurgent attacks in other Sunni cities, it did not stir the sort of general upsurge against the U.S. occupation that the first assault on Falluja did in April.
At that time, the U.S. rulers faced a real possibility of an uprising against the occupation including both Shiites and Sunni areas. They were able to defuse it by making separate deals with the Falluja rebels and the Shiite insurgents headed by Moqtada Al Sadr. Since then, the communal rifts seem to have deepened. An example is the kidnapping and atrocious murder of four Shiite truck drivers in Falluja in the months preceding the recent assault. There are also reports of ongoing attacks in the “Triangle of Death” on Shiites traveling from Baghdad to the holy sites of the sect in southern Iraq.
The Washington Post reported Nov. 23: “In the poor streets of the sprawling Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, where thousands once made the two-hour trip to the shrine cities, drivers of minivans, taxis and small buses sat idly last week, waiting for passengers and pilgrims.
“’Everyone’s scared of Latifiyah’ [a town in the Triangle of Death on the road to the Shiite holy cities in the south], said [taxi driver] Rahman Abdullah, 35. …”
The radical Islamist component of the insurrection, represented by Musab Al Zarqawi and his Al Qaeda affiliated group, considers Shiites heretics, even infidels. During the Falluja fighting, Al Zaraqi denounced the top Shiite clergyman, Ali Al Sistanti, as “the infidels’ Imam.”
The Shiites form a large majority of the Arab population of Iraq, but they have been oppressed for the entire history of the Iraqi state. They were subject to massive and murderous repression under Saddam Hussein. In the present circumstances, it is almost certain that any elected government is going to be dominated by the Shiite clerical parties. Therefore, the Shiite clerics have an interest in the elections scheduled now for Jan. 30 that the Sunnis do not.
The most radical party among the Shiites, the movement of Moqtada Al Sadr, is again talking about boycotting the elections. But Al Sadr has not followed a consistent line. It is hard to predict exactly what he will do, or what influence he will have when he finally decides.
Moreover, the radical Islamist tactic of killing anyone who collaborates with the U.S. forces or the Allawi government, often by spectacular executions, such as mass beheadings, threatens to arouse civil conflicts in a society dominated by clan and tribal loyalties and the concept of collective vengeance. In a Nov. 23 report on the offensive in the Triangle of Death, the Washington Post correspondent claimed that this was already a factor in the fighting in the area: “In several Shiite mosques, prayer leaders have denounced the killings in their sermons, and the bloodshed has unleashed fears of sectarian strife.
“The Mahdi Army militia of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr is said to be operating in the region, and tribesmen whose relatives were among the 12 National Guard members killed by the insurgents rampaged through the area this month, burning four homes, residents said. In the southern city of Basra, a group calling itself the Brigades of Fury was formed this month, ostensibly to help protect pilgrims, the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat reported.”
Thus, the resistance in Iraq seems to have come to a crossroads. Unless it overcomes these divisions, it risks being crushed militarily by the U.S. forces and their local allies. It cannot build a united movement based on religious organizations and loyalties. It has to find a political basis for uniting the overwhelming Iraqi rejection of the occupation and its local stooges.
The repression launched by the Allawi government makes it more difficult to build a political alternative, which, of course, is its major objective. But the stakes for the resistance are very high and its popular support is very wide, despite religious divisions. And so, there is a strong incentive to find new formulas for unity. If it does, it will turn the relationship of forces in the entire region decisively against U.S. imperialism and its local allies.
*This article first appeared in the December 2004 issue of Socialist Action newspaper.