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Return to Falluja


I’m realizing my overreliance on the L.A. Times for reporting on Falluja, but among the big U.S. papers, it seems to be the only one really covering the aftermath of November’s invasion; if I’m wrong about this, let me know. Two articles in the last week reveal a city in much worse shape than, say, Jenin in 2002, and the rules of return for refugees are certainly more draconian: a 6 p.m. curfew, retina scans, checkpoints, and a prohibition on cars, visitors, graffiti, and public gatherings.

This report in today’s L.A. Times gives the perspective of the marines, and unfortunately, underlines the problems that can come with embedded reporting. Tony Perry quotes U.S. soldiers who tell him that women and children are returning to the city because they feel “safe,” and that the destruction of Falluja was the fault of the insurgents. Perry notices skinny dogs and empty homes, “ruins” with a “strange, Stonehenge look.”

“Getting people back into their city and back to a normal life, that’s mission-success, if we can accomplish that,” one soldier told Perry.

Strangely, there is no mention in the article of the possible human toll in Falluja. A report that appeared on Reuter’s AlertNet yesterday reveals the potential scope of that omission. The article quotes Dr. Rafa’ah al-Iyssaue, the director of Falluja’s main hospital, saying his emergency teams have recovered more than 700 bodies from destroyed buildings, over 550 of whom were women and children. The Iraqi Red Crescent Society hasn’t confirmed the death toll, and the Iraqi health ministry says the numbers of women and children killed are small.

“We need someone here to show the reality of Fallujah,” Sheikh Abbas Al-Zubeiny says in the piece. “Even when some journalists are here they are being followed by the Marines. We need someone to help us. The world should see the real picture of Fallujah.”

In the meantime, everyone seems to agree the place is uninhabitable. A second L.A. Times article, written last week by Edmund Sanders from Baghdad, questions the possibility of balloting for the upcoming elections in the destroyed city, and puts that issue in some perspective. “What election?” one Iraqi man asks Sanders. “I’m a refugee. How can a refugee take part in an election?” The refugee, Yasser Abbas Atiya, described Falluja to Sanders, who writes of a hell. “Lakes of sewage in the streets. The smell of corpses inside charred buildings. No water or electricity. Long waits and thorough searches by U.S. troops at checkpoints.”

Rounding out this sunny post, check out an article from The Economist last week, titled “When deadly force bumps into hearts and minds.” At best, the article’s revelations bode badly for American attempts to rehabilitate Falluja. I’ll leave the worst implications to the imagination.

…Armies can be good at war-fighting or good at peacekeeping but rarely good at both. And when America’s well-drilled and well-fed fighters attempt subtler tasks than killing people, problems arise. At peacekeeping, peace-enforcing or policing, call it what you will, they are often inept. Even the best of them seem ignorant of the people whose land they are occupying — unsurprisingly, perhaps, when practically no American fighters speak Arabic. And, typically, the marine battalion in Ramadi has only four translators. Often American troops despair of their Iraqi interlocutors, observing that they “are not like Americans.”


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