This is what democracy looks like?

According to Lt-Col Pete Newell, the US forces "want Fallujah to understand what democracy's all about." Substitute "imperialism" for "democracy" and you get the reality of the situation. For the second time in six months, the town of Fallujah has suffered American attack. In April, as in November, US troops have closed in on the city and popular uprisings have broken out in cities across Iraq. Back then the outrage created by reports of large civilian casualties forced the Americans to withdraw. Not this time. The "liberation" of Fallujah will be achieved, regardless of how many are killed and how much is destroyed.

The occupying forces have learned some lessons from the failed conflict in April. After waiting for "permission" from Ayad Allawi (i.e., after doing preliminary bombing to soften up their targets while waiting for their puppet to say what he was told to say), U.S. forces started the ground assault of Fallujah. One of the first targets was the hospital. This was occupied explicitly to steam reports of civilian casualties, with the occupiers stating that it was the source of rumours about heavy casualties. "It's a centre of propaganda," claimed a senior American officer. Patients and doctors were initially handcuffed but later freed although few of Fallujah's wounded will be treated there as it is across the river from most of the town and US troops seized both bridges. That and the little fact that the US treated the town (which had a population of 300,000) as a free-fire zone -- anyone seen on the streets would be simply shot. U.S. bombing also demolished two hospitals, one a newly-built, just-opened emergency hospital. The non-American wounded are, in essence, left to die.

The seizing of the hospital is part of another conflict. The US military "intends to fight its own information war." Now the attackers can ensure that children with their limbs blown off will not put viewers off their dinner. By "propaganda" the US military simply meant doctors who treated patients communicating the details to others and, eventually, getting onto the media. Clearly an organisation which proudly proclaims that it does not count the civilians it kills is best suited for providing information on civilian causalities than the doctors who treat them.

It should be remember that when the US bombed Serbian TV during the war on Yugoslavia it used the same rationale, that as it spread propaganda it was therefore a military target. Amnesty International disagreed, calling the attack was a war crime. Now the US has raised the bar by occupying a hospital because it could be a source of independent information on the victims of their brutal assault.

The true extent of civilian casualties will start coming out only once the US military's grip on the city loosens. According to one Red Cross official at least 800 civilians have been killed (the number is likely to be higher).One thing is sure, Iyad Allawi's assertion that there had been no civilian casualties during the battle, contradicting as it does accounts from residents inside the city, will be proven to be nonsense it obviously is. Since hospitals and information itself are the primary initial targets, the only conclusion can be that the occupier wants to cover up in advance the atrocities it will commit as it tries to "liberate" Fallujah for the third time in two years.

And what form does this "liberation" take? Simply put, Fallujah is an example of Israeli-style collective punishment of Iraqi cities. Civilian carnage, coupled with enormous damage to homes and infrastructure, has become the daily reality. In every way, the rules of engagement in the assault have been dramatically loosened. US officers are informing their troops that if firing was identified from a house, then artillery fire should be called in to "pancake the building." The kill radius of the weapons used ensures that their use in crowded residential areas inevitably risks massive "collateral damage." Unsurprisingly, parts of the city are now just piles of rubble.

Muzzling dissent

It should be noted that the US occupiers' puppet, Ayad Allawi, who gave "permission" for the attack, has also declared martial law for 60 days, across the whole country except for the three northern Kurdish-run governorates. Ostensibly this is to guarantee security before the elections on January 27. Ignoring (as the media has) the rather obvious point of how does one run any kind of election campaign during a period of martial law, the fact is that this declaration of martial law has little to do with the elections. It has to do with countering opposition to the Fallujah assault.

Given that battles raged across Iraq, martial law has (predictably) failed to combat any counter-actions by the insurgency. However, it has undermined any call for Iraqis to engage in mass civil protest and resistance in solidarity with the civilians of Fallujah. This played a key role in stopping the April assault, with the mass, nonviolent citizen action breaking the military blockade around Fallujah and in pressuring members of the Iraqi Governing Council. Allawi's declaration and enforcement of martial law must be the main factor why this has not been repeated this time.

Moreover, martial law helps win the "information war" by controlling the press, with Iraq's media regulator warned news organisations to stick to the government line on the U.S.-led offensive in Fallujah or face legal action. Explicitly invoking the 60-day state of emergency, Iraq's Media High Commission (set up by the former US governor) said the media should "set aside space in your news coverage to make the position of the Iraqi government, which expresses the aspirations of most Iraqis, clear." If not then "we will be forced to take all the legal measures to guarantee higher national interests." Combined with the numerous other measures against press freedom taken in August, the (Fallujah-style) liberation of the media is now complete.

Perhaps unsurprisingly forty-seven Iraqi political parties (from all sides of the political spectrum) have announced that they will boycott the planned January elections.

Framing the story

Needless to say, these measures are hardly needed for the US and UK media whose genuflection to the needs of power are well documented. After all, you would be hard pressed to know why Fallujah became an insurgent centre. If you have a good memory you will remember that armed resistance developed there only after US troops opened fire on a crowd of civilians, killing seventeen and injuring some seventy more. The US described this as "appropriate action" perhaps because the "collateral damage estimate was within permissible limits," as the justification given for a later bombardment of the city that killed twenty put it. Equally, where are the articles and news reports of the tens of thousands of refugees? Who is talking about what will happen when they finally return to their town to find it in ruins? To their homes that may no longer exist in neighbourhoods that have been pounded into rubble? To a town lacking running water and functioning hospitals?

Nor has the press mentioned that the occupiers have refused to let any man under the age 55 to leave Fallujah. What does it say about the nature of the occupation? The US clearly considers all men of fighting age to be a potential enemy. And, of course, any others who refuse to leave behind their relatives or simply cannot leave due to poverty or illness? Or those hundreds of men who have tried to flee the city with their families during the assault? US troops only let only women, children and the elderly leave, in spite of the men being tested negative for any residues left by weapons. This is directly against the Geneva Conventions which explicitly require military forces to protect civilians as refugees and allow them to exit a combat zone. But at least they were not gunned down, as others fleeing the city have reportedly been.

One thing is obvious, the Geneva Convention has been overtly and specifically abandoned by the occupiers. While the US systematically violates it in one way or another in this case it is deliberately and systematically violating the basic core conventions themselves. Perhaps this is unsurprising. Once you assume all men are your enemies then it is a clear sign that you are in the wrong country. And that you should get out. As the Iraqi people are demanding.

Foreign Terrorists at large

Donald Rumsfeld, always the source of a good quote, stated that "no government can allow terrorists and foreign fighters to use its soil to attack its people and to attack its government, and to intimidate the Iraqi people." Given that it is US troops who are on Iraqi soil and attacking its people in order to show who the boss is, this might have been mistaken as irony. Sadly not, as the Americans forces who have invaded and are currently occupying Iraq cannot ever be foreign fighters who kill civilians in spite of the obvious fact that they are. And what of the "foreign fighters" in Fallujah? Of over 1,000 prisoners taken in battle, only about two dozen of them were non-Iraqis.

Not content with backing Saddam for decades, the US/UK seem intent on directly killing as many Iraqis as he did. In 18 months they have managed to clock up a third of Saddam's civilian deaths. Now many more are they willing to kill in the name of democracy? If you want a symbol of Bush's second term, at home and abroad, there is no more potent one than this action ultimately counter-productive destruction. In 1999, the Russians bombed and destroyed Grozny, the Chechen capital, a city of originally 400,000 people. Five years later, Chechen guerrillas are still fighting Russian troops there. Will the same scenario be replayed in Iraq?

The US military are quite candid that the assault on Fallujah is not expected to end the insurgency. So why alienate the Iraqi (and Middle East) population even more? One neo-conservative, former military officer Ralph Peters, helpfully explained. "We must not be afraid to make an example of Fallujah," he argued in the New York Post. "We need to demonstrate that the United States military cannot be deterred or defeated. If that means widespread destruction, we must accept the price . . . Even if Fallujah has to go the way of Carthage, reduced to shards, the price will be worth it." So Fallujah is being destroyed in order to bolster the image of the US military, to show that it will stop at nothing (not even war crimes) to impose its power on the world.

It also aims to send a message to the Iraqi people. "This exemplifies the horrors of war," said US Marine Capt PJ Batty. "We don't wish this upon anyone, but everyone needs to understand there are consequences for not following the Iraqi government."

A city destroyed because it did not follow the Iraqi government? Saddam would be proud.

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