2003 Iraq- Faluja

Journalism - Special Assignments




“Go! Go!” shouted the American soldiers nervously as we drove past the column of Hummers near the mosque at the entrance to Faluja. The main road was a jumble of vehicles, jittery American soldiers and clusters of Iraqis waving Iraqi flags gathered on the traffic islands.
We drove to Faluja because a day earlier American soldiers had fired into a gathering of people who were demonstrating against the American presence at the school in the southern part of Faluja. The Americans claimed that they had been shot at. The people in Faluja said that no one had fired at the soldiers. The soldiers responded to the demonstrations with a burst of gunfire that killed 13 and wounded dozens more. We arrived ten minutes after an American column had gone by and the soldiers in the turrets of the Hummers had decided that the demonstration across from the municipal building next to which an American paratroop company was stationed constituted a threat. They fired into the crowd, killing three people.
“I hate the paratroopers,” said Mitch. “They aren’t better trained than the regular divisions but they’re conceited and they think they’re an elite unit. The 82nd Airborne Division hasn’t a single shot during the whole course of the war and because of that they probably wanted to shoot.”
The randomness whereby we were the only journalists in the scene reminded me of the morning when I decided to go to Rajak in Kosovo, even though the battle there reported by the Serbian press office had occurred the previous day. Then, in January 1999, I arrived at a shocked village where the Albanians said they were prepared to take me to the valley of death where the Serbian soldiers and police had slaughtered more than 30 boys, young and old men, only if I would accompany them. When I went there the scene was awful and my face froze, in imitation of the death masks of the men who had been shot. The Serbians had fired in order to destroy any appearance of humanity. Bullets at short range, straight to the face and the nape of the neck, destroying faces entirely. Then I was the only journalist who had arrived on the scene, and when I went back to main road I found a European television crew. I sent them in because I was not certain that the Serbs would let me get out alive from what was still Yugoslavia if they knew what was in the video cassettes and the rolls of photographic film. The discovery of the massacre gave the legitimization to the Americans and NATO to embark on the aerial attack that led to the Serbs’ retreat and the creation of the Albanian Autonomy in Kosovo.
The Apache helicopters hovered at an altitude of 20 meters above us, murderous and frightening beasts. “Why do they need to fly around like that? Why don’t they send lighter helicopters? It’s scary,” said Mitch, gazing at the heavy helicopters above us, with their threatening artillery following the movements of the people who had gathered in small, agitated clusters and were gazing upwards at the helicopters, the noise of which broke on the roofs of the city and on the wide road in which the traffic island split the movement eastwards and westwards. They flew over the width, the guns remaining aimed at us. The best of American technology.
“Look!” One of the people in the street ran up to us. “This is what is left of the skull!” In his bloodstained hands he was holding parts of a cranial bone, leading us to the place where the dead man had been hit. A large puddle of blood covered the sidewalk. Next to the road lay large cartridges from a shot gun. “They fired and sent his skull flying in the air!” The blood was a large, viscous puddle on the paving stones near the house. The American soldiers use shot guns for fighting in built-up areas. Whoever blew up the Iraqi’s skull did it with a shot gun like the one Miguel carried at the nuclear reactor. The Iraqis call Faluja the City of Mosques. Sixty kilometers west of Baghdad on the main road. Seven-hundred-fifty thousand inhabitants, most of them members of the al Bufhad tribe, or al Nimr. The Panthers. From the road it looks like a quiet village, but the city stretches southwards and especially northwards over several kilometers, with minarets erect into the sky.
The Apache helicopters continued to hoover nervously and threateningly a few dozen meters over the road and the American soldiers stood and looked at the crowd that was moving restlessly in groups of a few dozen up and down the road. The air was electrified and tense.
“Those are Israeli helicopters. As if we were Palestinians!” said someone in the crowd and for a moment I thought about what was stronger – the simile or the reality. The Apaches over the Palestinian cities and the mosques in the Gaza Strip blended for a long moment with the Apache helicopters that were hovering threateningly over the mosques of Faluja.
“Fadi! Come here!” yelled Mitch. Fadi crouched next to Fares’ car, seeking shelter between the car and the building next to it. He was from Baghdad. The spoiled young boy who wanted to be with the journalists but the shooting and the helicopters and the soldiers’ battles and the rage of the threatening crowds were too much for him. Before we got there, he spoke enthusiastically about the famous kebab of Faluja. Fares agreed with him that the best thing is to eat kebab in Faluja. We had intended to eat kebab and instead we were served fragments of skulls and bloodstains and thundering, scary helicopters and an angry, restless crowd. This was not for Fadi, who froze between Fares’ car and the wall of the building and didn’t go to Mitch despite his shout, and went nowhere near the crowd of Iraqis above whom the chopper was hovering, aiming its guns at them and at us. We were standing among them.
“This is the freedom and democracy that the Americans have brought us!” shouted an angry man in western clothes in the crowd that jostled around us. “They kill people who don’t have weapons!” He spoke in Arabic and a short, bespectacled man next to him translated excitedly. “People came to protest today against what the Americans did yesterday and to demonstrate quietly and they Americans fired on them again!”
“These are the murderers of the Iraqi people!” Another man pointed at the helicopters that continued to hover and encircle the crowd across from the municipal building and the building where the American soldiers were stationed.
“We are all fedayun. Translate this into English from Arabic so the whole world will know!” someone in the crowd urged the man who spoke English.
“We have weapons!” cried a man wearing a jalabiya, beads of perspiration glistening on his forehead. “Here! Look!” he pulled a grenade out of the pocket of his jalabiya. “If they continue like this we will expel them with the weapons we have. We will all be martyrs.”
“Three dead and four wounded,” said an elderly man in good English. The number of English-speakers in Faluja was surprising.
“There’s no government, there’s no electricity, there’s no fuel, there’s no law. What good does it do us that there’s no Saddam Hussein?” said another man excitedly. “They came here because of the oil. When they occupied Iraq the only building they protected was the Ministry of Oil in al Dura and they destroyed all the rest.”
And a woman in traditional black garb stopped nearby and said: “Let Saddam come back. He unified the nation!” There were M-16 cartridges on the ground next to us.
“Do you want Saddam to come back?” I asked two young men in their 20s.
“No, no. We are with Islam. We don’t want Saddam and we don’t want America. Saddam and the Americans are the same thing!” said one of them angrily. “We want the Americans to get out of here and let us run our life the way we understand it. The Iraqis should run Iraq.””
“No one shot at the Americans?’
“No one. I was there. An American convoy went by and just started to shoot.”
“No one fired from within the compound,” said the American paratroop officer who was standing inside the municipality compound. “It was the convoy that went past. They fired southwards, where the Kalashnikov fire was coming from. They didn’t fire on us.”
Faluja is part of the Sunni belt that stretches from Ramadi through Faluja, northwards to Tikrit and eastward in the direction of Quba and the Diyala Valley that descends from the mountains on the Iranian border. This is the area of the Sunnis, which was Saddam’s power base. They stand to lose more than anyone in this war if the Shi’ites come up from the south now and the Kurds come down from the north. These processes had begun during the time I came to Baghdad, even though the Americans slated Ahmad Chalabi, the shady Sunni businessman, to run Iraq.
The school was in a quiet neighborhood. Low houses, courtyards and walls. The school was abandoned and in the schoolyard burned a large bonfire in which there were scraps of food and trash that the soldiers were burning before their departure. The teachers claimed that the Americans burned Korans but it was impossible to see anything in the flames. It could be that this was unlikely. The American firestorm lapped houses opposite, bullet-ridden cars in the carport of one of the houses. Hits on walls and windows and bloodstains. I was not at the place where everything had happened but there was a feeling that the soldiers were too young and everything happened of its own accord, as happens with an occupying army everywhere. During May and June Faluja continued to seethe. What began during those days in Faluja became an open wound hurting American Iraq.
Outside the municipality compound people crowded on the walls and demonstrated, shouting insults at the soldiers. The paratroopers were about to leave and the 3rd Cavalry was about to replace them. The officer said that these were expected replacements, not because of the second incident within two days. The officer said that there were rifles among the demonstrators on the day they fired at the armed men. The American paratroopers looked at the crowd and smiled cockily. They hadn’t a clue.
“How did it start?” I asked Major Marti.
He was quiet and spoke with moderation as in front of him, on the walls of the compound where he and his soldiers were standing young Iraqis were hanging anti-American posters and taunting the soldiers. “I have no idea, but during the past two days there were demonstrations of 100 or 200 people here.”
“Organized demonstrations?”
“I don’t know. Organized or spontaneous, but it seems to me that there is a certain amount of organization here. We are here to maintain security and give security from the previous regime.” At the level of the company commander at least the officers were briefed with clichés that they provided to the media.
“Do you think that these are demonstrations on behalf of the previous regime?”
“Maybe.”
Salah al Jumaili was a short man who wore glasses and a tailored shirt. His English was good; he had been a mechanical engineer in England for 13 years. Salah was one of the cluster of agitated people who crowded around and looked at the Americans across the street. “This is a traditional city. We demand that they leave the city. We can’t stand having American soldiers roaming around here and drinking beer. We do not need Mr. Bush’s help. Do you know that one day I asked one of the soldiers whether he knows who Jay Gardner is? He did not know. I said to him: ‘Jay Gardner was the director of a company that developed guided missiles and when they fired the missiles on our people and killed them he felt proud that his missiles were so successful and hit the targets so well. And can you imagine that a person like that, that kind of person, is going to come here now to rebuild Iraq? He has done everything to destroy Iraq. He is a criminal and his heart is not honest when he comes here.’”

At the beginning of May, three weeks after Salah al Jumaili’s complaint, retired general Jay Gardner was sent back to the United States and made way for someone whom the impatient American government expected would to a better job. Yet as everywhere, the most important period is the period of the founders – the shaping of a scene that can be made ugly even before it stagnates or shatters into pieces that cannot be put back together again. The arrogant Jay Gardner and the American army that didn’t have a clue succeeded very badly.
“Jihad,” said Salah. “Jihad exists always and everywhere among Muslims and in every period, but there are different ways of carrying it out and there is a moment when it is right to set it in motion. But we are trying to get them to understand. Even if they have killed us – we know that the soldiers have families and we want them to leave our midst. If their leaders have told them that they have come to liberate us – they were lying to them. Get up and leave us in peace and when we see them as civilians – we will shake their hands. We want reciprocal relations and reciprocal respect. We are open people. We are not Taliban and we are not mullahs. We want cooperation but not in Bush’s way that creates a destructive war in Sharon’s way.”
“Do you think that the Israelis are behind this war?”
“Of course. The only ones who are benefiting from this war are the Israelis, not the Americans. Sharon is leading Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld and Powell. All of them are Zionists and they are doing all this out of their commitment to Israel. This is the feeling of the Iraqi people. The person who led us is no longer here and now we need to build up our country by ourselves out of our history and culture and not out of a cowboy culture. Even in Israel, when there is a demonstration by our Palestinian brothers, the Israelis don’t fire straight at them like it happened here. They are murderers. If there is such a thing as international law and a court for war laws – we have to sue at the War Crimes court in The Hague.”
“Will you file suit?”
“Of course, to a court, to the Islamic court, to the American people, to the British people, to anyone who will listen to us. The American’s don’t need to set themselves up as the international police. They are an uncultured mafia. They are running the world with rifles. They are uncultured.” Quite a few people around the world would say the same.

It was afternoon when we left Faluja to go back to Baghdad. When we came, Fadi had spoken longingly about the Faluja kebab, but as the morning faded into bloody noon and the heat together with the blood on the pavement, the depressing racket of the combat helicopters and the proximity of death frightened us.
“Kebab?” I asked Fadi.
“Baghdad,” said Fadi.
“As fast as possible to Baghdad.”


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