By Pepe Escobar
“The Romans create a desolation and call it
“The enemy has a face. It is Satan’s. He is
in Fallujah, and we are going to destroy him.”
– Colonel Gary Brandl, US Marines
President George W Bush is “reaching out” to Fallujah – the first major
foreign policy initiative of the second Bush administration. The name:
Operation Phantom Fury. The strategy: precision-strike democracy. The
message: kill them all, and let God sort them out.Former US intelligence asset turned prime minister without a parliament
Iyad Allawi – widely known in Baghdad as “Saddam without a moustache” –
has got himself another title: the Butcher of Fallujah. On Sunday,
before co-launching with the Pentagon the biggest urban war since the
storming of Hue in 1968 Vietnam, Allawi installed de facto martial law
in Iraq for 60 days. Historians and political scientists are
breathlessly trying to explain to the world that no democratic election
can possibly be preceded by a state of siege.
To add insult to injury, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld is saying that
Allawi is responsible for all major military decisions regarding
Fallujah: only the Bible Belt may be gullible enough to believe that an
Iraqi civilian without an army rules over the Pentagon. So it’s the
Vietnam tragedy all over again, replayed as farce – a biblical crusade
in Mesopotamia. Those who learned their lessons from history know full
well what happened after Hue.
The new Hue, or the new Grozny
The Pentagon spin machine is selling Operation Phantom Fury as a battle
of good against evil to root out “terrorists” in the “militant
stronghold” of Fallujah. It is selling war on civilians as “the
liberation of the people of Fallujah” as well as the next step towards
implementing “democracy” in Iraq. These are outright lies. Fallujans
insist they are not harboring al-Qaeda fighters, or even the elusive
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The Pentagon insists that Fallujah is the
headquarters of Zarqawi’s al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Unity and Holy War)
movement. So if there’s no Zarqawi – if he really does exist, he has
already left the building, sources tell Asia Times Online – and no
al-Qaeda, what’s the point of unleashing this fury?
The code name betrays it all: the real motive for turning Fallujah into
Grozny is revenge. In the first siege of Fallujah in April, the
mujahideen inflicted a severe defeat on the Americans. Fallujah had
already become the symbol of the Iraqi resistance after Marines killed
15 civilians in May 2003 – when the city even had a pro-American mayor.
Last April, up to 1,000 Iraqis were killed, blown up, burnt or shot by
the Americans – two thirds of them civilians, mostly women and
children. Now, one of the first targets of Phantom Fury was a Fallujah
hospital, qualified by the Pentagon as “a center of propaganda”. The
fact is, in April hospital doctors were carefully detailing to the
world media the hundreds of innocent civilians killed by the American
assault. Now, under a strategy of what could almost be called
collective punishment, the hospital has become a military target.
No images, no sound
This is the ultimate asymmetric war – ultra high-tech F-16s, Cobra and
Apache helicopters, AC-130 gunships, tanks, Bradleys and awesome
firepower against a bunch of youngsters in tracksuits and trainers with
mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. A few hundred of them are Arabs
– Saudis, Yemenis, Jordanians, Tunisians – the new generation of the
jihad diaspora. But the majority are Iraqi fighters, many of them
former or retired military officers, engaged in a war of national
liberation. The Pentagon is pitting between 2,000 to 2,500 fighters in
Fallujah and environs along with another 10,000 Iraqi civilians against
at least 12,000 troops – four US military brigades and one 500-strong
Iraqi brigade, trained by the Marines and included in the American
Serious fighting rages in al-Guaifi, in the northern part of the city,
in the Golan and Military neighborhoods to the east, and in the
Industrial and al-Shuhada neighborhoods to the south. The mujahideen,
at least for the moment, are holding their positions.
Nobody will know the full extent of the horror inflicted on Fallujah
civilians because this is a war micromanaged by the Pentagon –
carefully built up for weeks, timed to set off only after the
re-election of Bush, and now conducted with a few embedded journalists
on the side duly brainwashed by a barrage of propaganda and spin. The
Sunni triangle has become so dangerous that independent journalism is
out of the question. Thus the absence of war images – apart from
Pentagon propaganda videos of Marines under night vision cameras with
the faint sound of explosions in the background.
There’s no soundtrack to this war. No sound of 2,000-pound bombs
falling on rows of houses and followed by relentless wailing, the sound
of missiles flying overhead, the sound of prayers and cries of “Allah
Akbar!” trying to drown out the fear, the sound of AC-130 Spectre
gunships demolishing a whole city block in less than a minute, the
sound of bodies hitting the sand targeted by Marine snipers. The only
reliable information of what’s happening on the ground in Fallujah
comes from civilians who have left to Baghdad.
It’s a blatant lie to describe a city of 300,000 as a “militant
stronghold”. Even if there were only 100,000 residents left, most of
these, tens of thousands, are civilians, and as usual in any war, they
are the most vulnerable: the poor, the elderly, the sick, the ones who
could not get way because of fate, and the bravest of the brave –
nurses and doctors.
Fallujah from the inside
Senior scholar Sheikh Omar Said identifies three major strands in
Fallujah – Sufism, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafism, all united at
the moment against the occupation. The city is being run by the
mujahideen shura (council) – led by influential imams and
mosque preachers like Abdullah al-Janabi, Zafir al-Obeidi and Omar
Fallujah has four main clans: Zawbaa, al-Jamilat, Bu Eisa and
al-Mahameda, plus many secondary clans like Tamim, Bani Kabis,
al-Fayad, al-Aneen and al-Raween. Most of the clans are Sunni and
originally came from the Arab peninsula.
The backbone of Fallujah is Islam and its tribal clans. Bravery is the
common staple. Vendetta is a must. People prefer to die than to submit
to a foreign invader: it’s considered their Islamic duty. More than 20
prominent Saudi scholars recently qualified the resistance as a
legitimate right and obligation.
The Fallujah mujahideen shura is a real unifying force. There
are no “terrorists” in the midst of these resistance leaders, tribal
chiefs and Sunni clerics – only Iraqis fighting a war of national
liberation. To counteract Pentagon propaganda, the shura has
promised to protect journalists and house them in a “special building”.
But considering what happened in Kabul in 2001 and Baghdad in 2003,
there’s every reason to believe the Marines could have an “accident”.
The local command in Fallujah is centered in two mosques: Saad ibn Abi
Wakkas, run by imam Abdullah al-Janabi, and al-Hadra al-Mohammadiya,
run by imam Zafir Al-Obeidi. Janabi controls the mujahideen shura
and Obeidi controls the political shura, presided by Sheikh
Tarlub Abdel Karim al-Alusi and uniting tribal and religious chiefs and
city notables. Tarlub is the de facto political chief of the guerrillas
in Fallujah – even though decisions are collective and the word of the
imams and the emirs carries enormous power.
Asia Times Online sources in Baghdad close to the resistance in
Fallujah confirm that Tarlub was saying as late as last week that the
city would have preferred negotiations, but the Americans wanted a war.
The sheikh also said that 80% of the youth of Fallujah had joined the
resistance, as it would be a shame for their families if they were not
committed to defend their city. According to the sheikh, there are more
than 1,500 foreign jihadis in town (the Pentagon says they are between
2,000 and 2,500), but no al-Qaeda. The sheikh defends the presence of
“the Arabs” – as Iraqis call them: they are “Muslim brothers” who came
to help expel the invaders. Many nationalist Iraqis though are angry
with the foreigners’ presence because, they say, this serves the
American strategy of labeling everybody as “terrorists”. But in terms
of an attack on Fallujah and as far as the Iraqi resistance is
concerned, the sheikh was sure that the mujahideen would adapt, retreat
and later come back in full force.
What will the world say?
Even before Phantom Fury, American bombing had been killing Fallujah
civilians for weeks. Now the Marines are invading hospitals, targeting
ambulances and in the next few hours and days may even bomb mosques: so
much for capturing Iraqi hearts and minds. The souk in the city center
used to be open until noon and still had some food – but this was
before Allawi cut off the roads from Fallujah to Baghdad and Ramadi.
The hospitals are overflowing, but with no supplies, medicine and only
occasional electricity. The brand new Nazzal hospital – funded by Saudi
donors – was destroyed last Saturday by two American missiles.
A few days ago, a message from “the mosques of Fallujah” threatened a
jihad all over Iraq against the Americans and those who helped them if
Fallujah was attacked. A fatwa – approved by top religious authorities
in Baghdad – officially proclaiming the jihad may be issued in the next
few hours or days, something that would set the whole Sunni triangle on
fire and promote even closer collaboration between the jihadis and
The civilian victims of Phantom Fury can barely count on global public
opinion expressing outrage. It didn’t happen last April, under the
first siege of Fallujah, and it didn’t happen last August, when Najaf
was attacked. According to a study published by the British medical
paper The Lancet, the American invasion and occupation has caused at
least 100,000 Iraqi deaths – September 11 dozens of times over.
Fallujah may add one more September 11 to the list. More than half of
the dead were women and children.
Fallujah as the road to civil war
What will be achieved by turning Fallujah into Grozny? Absolutely
nothing positive for the US. History shows that a people fighting a war
of national liberation is never easily intimidated. The resistance will
melt away and regroup. Top Sunni clerics all over the Sunni triangle
and beyond have reminded Iraqis – as if they needed any reminding –
that they should help the guerrillas to escape. On the jihadi front,
the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, the group linked to al-Qaeda which has
claimed responsibility for the Madrid bombing, has already threatened
the US with “unbearable hell” – and did not forget to hold the American
electorate responsible for condoning Bush’s Phantom Fury-style
Mohamed Bashar Faidhi, a member of the Sunni Association of Muslim
Clerics, promised the powerful association would boycott the January
election if Fallujah was attacked. The association – as well as the
majority of Iraqis – knows that “Saddam without a moustache” Allawi is
alive and in power only because of 137,000 US troops.
On Tuesday, a major Sunni Muslim political party, the Iraqi Islamic
party (Hizbul Islami al-Iraqi), quit the interim government and
withdrew its single minister from the cabinet in protest against the
assault on Fallujah. The Iraqi Islamic party is the Iraqi branch of the
Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamic party well established in the
Its members have a long history of oppression under Saddam Hussein’s
rule. As a result, party leaders went into exile, mostly in London.
Immediately after the fall of Saddam, they restored their activities,
and somewhat surprisingly adopted a peaceful political struggle to give
the US a chance to hand over power to the Iraqi people. This chance has
now been lost.
Martial law means in practice a daily curfew, no political meetings and
no free press – but the resistance won’t go away. The dynamic is
inexorable: Sunnis will increasingly view themselves as excluded from
the new Iraq as Shi’ites keep gaining power. This is the road for civil
There could not be a more tragic exercise in futility than Phantom Fury
as Vietnam revisited – to destroy Fallujah in order to “save” it. The
new Grozny, filled with rubble, will either become a garrison – with
scores of Americans being blown up by roadside bombs – or the
resistance will eventually get the city back when the Americans leave.
Few Sunni Iraqis will believe this was all about protecting them from
“terrorists” and promoting “democracy”. Precision-strike democracy is a
neo-conservative phantom, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
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