Bagdhad (AHT) – Ross Caputi, a former Marine who was “witness and accomplice to the atrocities” committed in Fallujah in November 2004 during “Operation Phantom Fury”, wrote this about his unit’s entry into the city:
Perhaps it was just too painful of a realization for many of us to make, because we saw ourselves as the liberators, the good guys, and to admit that we were hurting innocent people would have contradicted everything that we claimed to stand for. I can only speculate about what the motives were for the people who dreamed up that mission and decided to make the people of Fallujah flee into the desert. Was it also too painful for the decision makers to admit to themselves that we were hurting innocent people? Or were they so evil that they just did not care who we were hurting? Whatever their reasons for doing it were, the fact of the matter is that our entire command was aware that we had forced the majority of the city’s population, about 200,000 people, into refugee status, but nobody took responsibility for their wellbeing, as international law required of us.
Central to that command was Major General Andrew “Jim” Molan, an Australian who was seconded to the US military in 2004 and took overall command of US coalition forces in Iraq, alongside the current US defense secretary Jim Mattis.
What happened in the so-called “second battle of Falluja” however, went far beyond a failure to attend to the needs of the civilian population who were able to flee the city before the US assault. Those who remained found themselves imprisoned in a “free-fire zone” for 10,500 US troops and 850 UK special forces, along with 2000 Iraqis loyal to the Occupation government in Baghdad.
While the “Battle for Falluja” has been glorified and celebrated as the most destructive and significant US battle since Vietnam, intended to be a final stand against insurgents who had become concentrated there, it has also been recognized as one of the worst war crimes committed by US coalition forces during the whole occupation of Iraq.
Although the insurgents included the progenitors of those now fighting in Syria, – AQI and Ansar al Sunna, there was significant popular backing for them amongst the local Sunni population, who saw US forces as oppressors rather than liberators. In the “first battle of Falluja” eight months earlier, when legitimate public protests against oppressive actions by US forces drew a lethal response and the deaths of 17 innocent civilians, this popular resistance solidified. As Ross Caputi describes it:
After the resistance movement in Fallujah successfully repelled the first U.S. led siege of their city in April of 2004, Fallujah became a symbol of heroism and resistance to Iraqis. In the United States Fallujah was made into a symbol of terrorism. The U.S. mainstream media described Fallujah as a “hotbed of anti-Americanism” and an “insurgent stronghold”, and gave little mention of the 300,000 civilians that lived there. In November of 2004, the U.S. launched a massive siege on Fallujah that killed anywhere between 800 and 6,000 civilians, forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, and left much of the city in ruins. From that point on Fallujah became a symbol to much of the world of cruelty, devastation, and occupation.
The suffering inflicted on Fallujah did not end in 2004. Life for the people who chose to return to their city never improved. The U.S. imposed security measures and curfews that made living a normal life in Fallujah impossible. Residents already had to struggle to make ends meet in their dilapidated city, but the constant security check-points, ID card scans, and arrests only made life harder. Food and Medicine were scarce, and they remain scarce to this day.
It is impossible to read these accounts, both of what happened to Fallujah in 2004 and of the way it was portrayed by US leaders and US media, without comparing it with the current “battles” in both Iraq and Syria – Mosul, Raqqa, Aleppo, and Idlib. Looking at the gaping chasm between the current reality perceived by Syrians and their allies, and that presented in Western media one can only lament for the lessons unlearned, and be incensed at the depth of deception that marks today’s battles.
But one question remains as hard to answer. As Caputi asked:
Was it also too painful for the decision makers to admit to themselves that we were hurting innocent people? Or were they so evil that they just did not care who we were hurting? Whatever their reasons for doing it were, the fact of the matter is that our entire command was aware…(of the refugees’ plight)
A similar question was asked in the Australian Parliament this week of the now former General Jim Molan, who has just entered the parliament as a Liberal party senator. Greens leader Richard Di Natale was reacting to Molan’s apparent sympathy for anti-Muslim and anti-immigration groups but chose to draw attention to Molan’s questionable record in Iraq, and in the battle of Falluja.
Di Natale said the attack on Fallujah was a disaster for civilians, and Senator Molan had to bear responsibility:
“At the time of the assault on Fallujah under the command of now-Senator Molan, a UN special rapporteur said coalition forces used hunger and deprivation as a weapon of war against the civilian population — a flagrant violation of international law,” Senator Di Natale said.
“Minister, given Senator Molan’s extreme views, do you have a concern these views influenced the decisions he made while executing the military campaign in Fallujah?”
The defense minister Marise Payne avoided addressing Di Natale’s legitimate demands altogether – hardly surprising given her own defense of the indefensible over Australian actions in Syria. Di Natale doesn’t know “what it takes to lead your nation in a uniform”, she said, while PM Turnbull echoed with his own paean to the defense of “Australian values”:
I want to remind the honorable member that in this parliament, on both sides, there are men and women who have served Australia in our uniform, putting their lives on the line, to defend those values. They haven’t just defended them, they’ve fought for them.
Should we assume that those Australian values are represented by Molan’s actions in Fallujah, which appear to have not merely condoned atrocities but to have contributed to them? Molan himself went on the front foot in his maiden speech to the Senate this week, including this claim:
I spent one year in Iraq when I ran the war in Iraq. I fought for Muslims in Iraq, and many Iraqis were alive when I left because of the actions that I took—not racist, not anti-Islam. Linking me to Britain First is absolutely absurd.
No doubt many similar statements could be found in Molan’s book about his year in Iraq, published in 2008 – “Running the War in Iraq”. The truth of what happened however, and Molan’s apparent shared responsibility for the crimes, is revealed in an article from the time by an Australian academic, Chris Doran. (An abbreviated version was posted more recently here)
Doran details the many parts of the US coalition’s brutal and vindictive assault on Fallujah, which led to the deaths of up to 6000 trapped civilians, as well as the most devastating ongoing health problems from the use of chemical weapons including White Phosphorus and Depleted or undepleted Uranium. The terrible effects of the latter have been investigated at length by Dr. Chris Busby, but fourteen years later remain unacknowledged and unanswered crimes of the Empire.
While providing as much evidence as might be necessary for an accusation of criminal complicity in these crimes, Chris Doran also finishes with a generous statement:
Under the international legal doctrine of command responsibility, a commander can be held liable if they knew, or should have known, that anyone under their command was committing war crimes and they failed to prevent them. The consistency and similarity of the attacks at Najaf, Samarra, and Fallujah display a deliberate disregard for civilian casualties in the planning and implementation of those military assaults. By Molan’s own admission, he was responsible for not only planning, but also directing, these attacks. It is not conceivable that Molan was unaware of the serious and well documented accusations of atrocities being committed under his command.
While admirable that General Molan is so quick to admit responsibility for Fallujah, it is disconcerting that he does not seem to feel that he has done anything wrong, or should in any way be held accountable, for his actions. It is this utter hubris that most accurately characterizes his writing. Sanitised as it is though, Molan has written an excellent brief regarding why it is crucial we start holding our political and military leaders accountable for their actions in Iraq. He would be an excellent place to start.
Sadly we can now say that not only have our political and military leaders still not been held to account for their actions in Iraq, but in the ten years since this was written, they have gone on to commit crimes in both Iraq and Syria which are not even recognised, yet in total threaten to exceed all those of the previous decade.
This post originally ran on American Herald Tribune.
David lives in Australia, but grew up and graduated in the UK.