Nov. 6, 2004 – The intensity of air raids on the Central Iraq city of Fallujah continued to crescendo overnight as some 10,000 US Marines prepared for what is expected to be a massive urban assault on the city that has been most resistant to foreign occupation. But as American troops, accompanied by hundreds of Iraqi personnel, get ready to move, international words of caution have come streaming toward the United States.
One ominous sign of the impending attack came in the form of leaflets dropped into Fallujah by US aircraft. Residents told the Associated Press the leaflets warn women and children -- but not adult male noncombatants -- to leave the city for their own safety. In fact, Reuters reports that US troops have announced via loudspeakers that any man under the age of 45 caught entering or leaving the city will be detained.
According to Arab News, Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan estimates that only 30,000 people remain inside Fallujah, the population of which was estimated at nearly ten times that before the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Some 425 Iraqi soldiers will be joining the Marines to form the operationâ€™s ground force. The Times of London reports the Iraqi troops are being incorporated into the invasion force in order to, in the words of Marine Brigadier General Dennis Hajlik, put an "Iraqi face" on the operation. Hajlik said he is confident that the assembled force will be strong enough to "whack" the resistance "in a decisive fashion."
But some US Marines are expressing concerns about the inclusion of Iraqi troops, whom they believe are skittish, poorly trained and undisciplined, potentially putting noncombatants or allies at grave risk.
US Marine Major Mike Zachaya, an adviser to the Iraqi attachment, told National Public Radio that the Iraqi troops are prone to "just shoot, whether they have a target or not." He recounted a recent overnight incident during which the base camp was hit by a rocket propelled grenade. "All night [the Iraqis] were shooting, â€™cause they were seeing ghosts out there." Zachaya said American officers are "very, very concerned," but assured NPR they are "working very hard to minimize any kind of friendly-on-friendly incidents. But it happens," Zachaya added. "It happens all the time."
According to Zachaya, the Iraqi unit is the best the Iraqi military has to offer, despite being half its original strength as a result of heavy casualties and massive desertions.
US warplane crews have been bombarding Fallujah daily for several weeks, and constantly since Thursday afternoon. Mohammed Al-Alwani, an Iraqi civilian, told The Times that the city has been devastated in recent attacks, which have been the heaviest since Marines retreated from Fallujah at the end of April. "Whoever looks around Fallujah now can only feel sadness," Al-Alwani said. "The damage is so heavy the suburbs look like they were hit by an earthquake."
The cost in lives of noncombatants has been difficult to gauge, but with nearly every strike since more than 600 Iraqis died in Fallujah during April, there have been reports of civilian dead arriving at the cityâ€™s only major hospital. During Aprilâ€™s incursion, the hospital was sealed off from most incoming wounded.
The Associated Press reports that the combat hospital in the main US base near Fallujah has established a morgue and doubled its medical staff and supplies, but US planners have not indicated whether they intend to again block wounded Iraqis from reaching civilian medical care inside Fallujah during the coming battle.
Last month, a videotape surfaced depicting what appeared to be the massacre of Iraqi civilians by a US pilot following orders. Recorded in April from the targeting camera of an American F-16 aircraft over Fallujah, the accompanying audio track revealed that an American commander or forward observer gave the F16 pilot orders to bomb a group of people identified to him only as "individuals," apparently without verifying the targets were hostile or even armed.
Cautions Issued to U.S., Iraqi Leaders
Civilian casualties are very much on the mind of Amnesty International. The human rights group issued a public statement on Thursday insisting that US and Iraqi troops make every effort to limit harm to noncombatants.
Since the US estimates that only about 1,200 armed rebels are operating inside the city of Fallujah, more than 95 percent of the people presently estimated to be inside the city limits are presumed to be noncombatants.
The Amnesty statement chastised the US for recent civilian deaths and the destruction of homes and other property around Fallujah. The group also repeatedly reminded US and Iraqi officials of their obligations under the Geneva Conventions, to which both Iraq and the United States are signatories. The group emphasized the rules of warfare and the treatment of captives.
Amnesty also addressed commanders of the resistance, calling on them to avoid placing civilians in harmâ€™s way and to treat wounded and captured invaders with care.
United Nations Secretary Kofi Annan, in a letter addressed to the United States, Great Britain and Iraq, issued cautions of his own. Annan reiterated the UNâ€™s interest in helping Iraq hold general elections planned for late January, 20005, but expressed concerns that an invasion of Fallujah in the near future could jeopardize those elections and be "very disruptive for Iraq's political transition."
At a Friday press conference, Annan told reporters he thought the use of force alone to create circumstances suitable for holding elections was counterproductive. "One also has to tryâ€¦ to win the hearts and minds of the people and to draw them in," Annan said, "so that at the end of the process, at the end of the elections, it is their product and people who have been involved and feel included will be inclined to accept the results rather than have certain groups questioning themselves."
Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who is presently in London, sidestepped Annanâ€™s letter, which is dated October 30 but only came to public attention yesterday when the LA Times and other news organizations obtained copies. "I don't know what pressure [Annan] has to bear on the insurgents," Allawi told the BBC. "If he can stop the insurgents from inflicting damage and killing the Iraqis, then he's welcome -- we will do whatever he wants."
Allawi also announced that "the window is closing" on the possibility for peace talks in Fallujah. But unidentified "guerilla sources" told The Times of London that the negotiation window has been closed for weeks, since Allawi himself reportedly barged peace talks and declared, "It is too late, the train of war is already in Fallujah."
US and British governments quickly dismissed Annanâ€™s warnings along with others.
"This is an issue for the government of Iraq," British Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry told the Times. "It's easy for those not in Iraq to underestimate the overwhelming concern the Iraqis have for security."
Adam Ereli, a US State Department spokesperson, echoed the British sentiment. "We want a peaceful end in Fallujah as much as anybody. But this is something the government of Iraq is working to effect and they're in the best position to know what will work and won't."
But even inside the Iraqi interim government, there is opposition to the planned assault. President Ghazi Al-Yawer on Monday told a Kuwaiti newspaper, Al-Qabas, that an attack could be avoided. "The way the coalition is managing the crisis is wrong," he said. "It is as if someone shot his horse in the head to kill a fly that landed on it. The fly flies away, and the horse dies."