May 19, 2005 – US military commanders were quick to declare victory after a massive, weeklong offensive that involved air and ground attacks against villages in Western Iraq, saying that marines had "neutralized" an important haven for insurgents in the region.
But local residents, doctors and relief agencies described something more akin to a humanitarian disaster, saying the campaign killed dozens of people, displaced thousands more -- leaving many without adequate food, shelter or water -- and flattened scores of buildings.
Dr. Hamid Al-Alousi, director of the main hospital in Al-Qaâ€™im, the largest town in the region, told reporters that the fighting between US forces and suspected rebels had killed more than 42 Iraqis and wounded another 80. He also said it was impossible to differentiate between civilians and fighters.
The Al-Qaâ€™im hospital was so badly damaged in the fighting that Al-Alousi said doctors have been treating the wounded in makeshift facilities set up in private homes.
Due to a lack of medical supplies, Al-Alousi told IRIN News that doctors had to perform more than eleven amputations without the use of anesthetics.
According to IRIN, the United Nations humanitarian news service, the village of Romanna, located about one mile west of Al-Qaâ€™im, was particularly hard hit. A school and a mosque were destroyed; gunfire and artillery shells damaged dozens of homes, IRIN reports.
"My house was totally destroyed during the attack, and I want to know who will pay for it," Salua Rawi, a resident of Romanna, told IRIN. "The US and insurgents just know how to fight but donâ€™t look at the mess they are causing in our country."
US military commanders said the week-long offensive, called "Operation Matador," involved some 1,000 marines and Army personnel on the ground, supported by Navy and Marine Corps fighter jets and attack helicopters. It was reportedly the largest military offensive in Iraq since US forces attacked and largely destroyed Fallujah last November. No Iraqi forces participated in the campaign, the Washington Post reported.
Commanders told reporters that US occupation forces were targeting other groups of foreign fighters they say had entered Iraq through Syria and taken up arms with insurgents and radical Islamic militants led by reputed Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi.
Many residents said US forces struck civilian neighborhoods, rather than insurgent bases, forcing people to flee their homes.
Um Mazin, a resident of Karabilah, told the Associated Press last week that US artillery shells hit her house. "We ran away from the American bombings," Mazin said. "The Americans do not hit the gunmen, they hit the houses of civilians."
After the attack, Mazin said she quickly fled her village with four other women and 21 children, joining dozens of other refugees in an impromptu tent village set up along a desert highway. There, they experienced fierce sandstorms and struggled to survive without adequate food and other supplies.
"We did not take enough food, water, medicine or clothes... and we are tired of the sandstorms," Mazin said. "No one can go back now, and we do not know what happened to our husbands."
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) confirmed Monday that fighting in and around the city of Al-Qaâ€™im caused hundreds of women, children and elderly persons to flee their homes. Many have yet to return to their villages, stating they are too afraid.
"We are happy that the offensive has ended but we are afraid to return to the town in case fighting erupts again, and we donâ€™t want to takes chances," Muhammad Warda told IRIN. Warda said he has been living in the desert south of Al-Qaâ€™im for the past week.
According to the Italian Consortium of Solidarity, a non-governmental aid agency setting up relief efforts in Western Iraq, the events displaced 8,000 people, and 6,000 are presently homeless in the region.
The Iraqi Red Crescent Society puts the number of displaced families in and around Al-Qaâ€™im at 1,000, according to the BBC. Many of them reportedly fled to schools and mosques in nearby towns, or into the desert where they lack shelter and other basic needs.
Adel Izzedine, a resident of Al-Qaâ€™im who spoke to the AP last week at the peak of fighting, said he left on foot with his wife and three children. Izzedine said they walked six miles through farm fields to reach a village where the family found transportation to Rawa, located 43 miles east of the fighting.
"There are gunmen in the city, but there are also a lot of innocent civilians," Izzedine said. "We are living the same misery that Fallujah lived some time ago."
The ICRC says it is now providing 135,000 liters of fresh water per day to hundreds of displaced families in the area.
The Iraqi Red Crescent Society also began trucking in aid to Al-Qaâ€™im last week. It says it has distributed food and non-food items to some 200 families in the village of Rawa, 250 families in Ana and 500 families in Akachat.
The US military claims that marines killed an estimated 125 insurgents during the week-long campaign, which spanned villages along the Euphrates River to very near the Syrian border. Nine US marines died and 40 more suffered wounds, according to commanders.
US claims - like those of Iraqi officials - could not be verified. The military did not indicate how it had determined the number of rebels killed, and news reports early in the offensive presented casualty estimates that conflicted with official reports.
Two days into the fighting, for example, commanders in Baghdad boasted that marines had killed 100 insurgents, but a reporter from the Chicago Tribune, who was embedded with the combat unit, quoted field commanders saying troops had killed only "a couple of dozen" suspected insurgents. An officer also said he thought "hundreds" of rebels were in the region, but "how many hundreds is tough to tell."
According to a report by Knight Ridder, some local tribal leaders said that when US forces attacked, they failed to distinguish between Islamic militants and local residents who oppose them.
"The Americans were bombing whole villages and saying they were only after foreigners," Fasal Al-Goud, a tribal leader, told the news service. Al-Goud said he asked US forces and Iraqi government officials to help local tribal militia groups battle the foreign militants, whose presence he said many locals resented.
Tribesmen reportedly told Knight Ridder that they had evacuated many women and children and set up checkpoints around their villages before US forces arrived. The men claimed they were trying to prevent militants from escaping to outlying areas and neighboring villages.
But when the offensive began, according to tribal leaders, US forces attacked both friends and foes. Residents who returned to their villages after the fighting said they found widespread destruction and the bodies of local militia fighters who had stayed behind to help the marines, Knight Ridder reported.
Captain Jeffrey Pool, a Marine Corps spokesperson in Iraq, acknowledged that informants in the area had provided intelligence about the activities of foreign militants before the offensive began. But he told Knight Ridder that US forces had not made arrangements for local tribesman to help with the operation.
Early in the offensive, marines encountered unexpectedly intense, organized resistance from insurgents in the town of Ubaydi, located about twelve miles east of the Syrian border, according to the Chicago Tribune. After calling in air strikes, ground forces engaged in fierce door-to-door fighting, the Tribune reported, after which they hit the town with artillery fire.
Colonel Stephen Davis, commander of a Marine Corps combat team, referred to the air assault portion of the campaign one of the offensiveâ€™s success stories, according to the Washington Post. By most reports, the air strikes flattened numerous houses and other civilian structures.
But despite Col. Davisâ€™ assessment, as well as official statements claiming massive casualties, some marines admitted that the offensive failed to net the hundreds of foreign fighters they said they were hunting.
Marine commanders told the Post that after entering several towns, they could not find any militants. They speculated that the opposing fighters had retreated to towns closer to the Syrian border, such as Husaybah, or fled into Syrian territory.
"That was the frustrating piece: coming up here for a fight and not finding anyone," Major Steve Lawson told the Post.
A man from Husaybah, identified as Abu Abdullah, told the AP that his town "witnessed heavy fighting, but despite that [American troops] were not able to enter it."
Other residents of Husaybah reported there were never any foreign militants in their town, only Iraqis defending their country against US forces.
According to the Post, a group of marines conducting house-to-house searches left some Iraqi homes carrying pillows and blankets they had commandeered, while others admitted they had beaten Iraqi men to get information about insurgents during previous searches.