June 22, 2004 – Hundreds of angry residents took to the streets of Fallujah on Monday to protest a US airstrike that killed at least 17 people last Saturday. US officials say they acted on "significant intelligence" and delivered a precision attack on a "terrorist safehouse" connected to infamous terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi. Outraged neighbors and Iraqi officials, however, said the target was a family home and that those killed were civilians.
The military continues to declare the offensive a success. "All of our post-strike intelligence continues to confirm that this was a safehouse with significant amounts of ammunition stored [there]," Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said at a press briefing. "I will say more accurately that these were key personnel in the Zarqawi network," he told reporters.
Evidence gathered from Fallujah residents suggests otherwise.
"It was obvious that the victims were merely Iraqi family members. We saw women and children. There was no justification for this surprising attack, for there wasn't a single person related to Zarqawi," Gen Mohammed Abid Dulaimi of the Fallujah Brigade told the LA Times. Marines ceded control of the city to the US-trained Fallujah Brigade in early May, in a negotiated ceasefire that ended a three-week siege of the city.
American F16 fighter pilots reportedly fired a missile into the Jubail district of Fallujah around 9:30 am Saturday, destroying at least one house completely, and damaging several others. Locals accused the US of inflicting maximum damage by firing a second missile minutes after the first. "The number of casualties is so high because after the first missile we jumped to rescue the victims," Wissam Ali Hamad told Aljazeera. "The second missile killed those trying to carry out the rescue."
Dr Fadhil Al-Baddrani told The Observer that the entire family of Mohammed Hamadi, a 65-year-old farmer, died in the attack. "The whole family is gone," said Al-Baddrani. "The blast was so powerful it blew them to pieces. We could only recognise the women by their long hair."
"We inspected the damage, we looked through the bodies of the women and children and elderly. This was a family," Nouri Aboud, a senior police official, told Reuters.
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi expressed his support for the attack Sunday morning, telling reporters, "We know that a house which had been used by terrorists has been hit. We welcome this hit on terrorism anywhere in Iraq." The US-appointed Prime Ministerâ€™s comments arenâ€™t likely to help his credibility with an Iraqi population that is already skeptical of Allawiâ€™s past, including dealings with the CIA and British intelligence services.
The attack also threatened the ceasefire in Fallujah, with the June 30 transfer of partial sovereignty just over a week away. "They want to provoke the people of Fallujah," Ahmed Sabah told the New York Times. "This is a very bad violation. It's not only Fallujah people who will stand up to them, it's all of Iraq."
The apparent unilateral manner in which the operation was planned and conducted has also come under fire from Fallujah security forces. "We were supposed to be consulted ... so as to be able to do our duty," General Dulaimi told the LA Times.
Colonel Sabbar Janabi, the Fallujah police chief, told the paper that the attack was an embarrassment for local security forces. "We would hope that a certain degree of coordination with the people of Fallujah should have been done," he said. US officials refused to say whether they consulted with Iraqi officials before launching the attack, reports the LA Times.
Under a series of written agreements between Allawi and US Secretary of State Colin Powell that are attached to the UN resolution setting conditions for sovereignty after June 30, the US military is supposed to coordinate all major operations with Iraqi officials in advance, though the Iraqis have no veto power over such operations. Many Iraqis feared that without such authority after June 30, the interim government would be powerless to stop the US from launching, or even modifying, attacks like the Fallujah airstrikes whenever and wherever they see fit.
Last month, US forces killed more than 40 people, nearly half of them women and young children, in an airstrike on a remote village in western Iraq. The military similarly claimed it was firing on a safehouse used by foreign fighters, but evidence from witnesses, hospitals and a videotape obtained by the Associated Press indicated that the US had struck a wedding party.
Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi has been accused by the US of masterminding a series of deadly car bombings and hostage-takings, including the videotaped beheading of American contractor Nicholas Berg.