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‘On This Day’ 2004: US Forces Launch Operation Vigilant Resolve, First Battle of Fallujah

On March 31, 2004 four guards from the private security company Blackwater USA entered a part of Fallujah, Iraq controlled by resistance fighters. It was a mistake that would cost them their lives; after being brutally tortured and murdered, their bodies were doused in gasoline and set on fire before being dragged through the streets and hung from a bridge. That same day five Marines were killed not far from the city by a roadside bomb.

Photos of the charred bodies of the four Blackwater mercenaries outraged Americans. In response, the Marines suspended their “kinder, gentler” approach, which was aimed at winning hearts and minds, and announced that Fallujah would be “pacified.”

On April 4, US forces commenced Operation Vigilant Resolve, a major campaign to find and kill those who were resisting foreign occupation of their homeland. Although women, children and old men were permitted to leave the city (albeit four days into the offensive), several hundred of them still died along with a few hundred Iraqi resistance fighters. Worse, US forces, mostly Marines, blocked access to the city’s main hospital and the BBC reported that American troops were shooting at ambulances. Wounded civilians bled to death for want of medical care. American officials declared that US forces were operating with “extraordinary precision,” and they were– women, children and old men were all precisely shot by American snipers, including an old woman waving a white flag of surrender.

Child killed by US sniper in Fallujah.

In the end, Operation Vigilant Resolve was a complete failure. That November, the United States would again try to take Fallujah. This time they called it Operation Phantom Fury. The military estimated that 70- 90% of the city’s civilian population fled in advance of the coalition attack. This meant that there were still anywhere from 30,000 to 90,000 people remaining in the city. Furthermore, US forces surrounded Fallujah and refused to allow any male between ages 15 to 55 to leave, another clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. It was preposterously presumed that every single last one of them was an insurgent.

“We were told… that every single person that was walking, talking, breathing was an enemy combatant,” said veteran Jeff Englehart, “As such, every single person that was walking down the street or in a house was a target.” The “free-fire zones” of Vietnam infamy were alive and well in Fallujah.

When the Marines rolled into Fallujah for the second time, they literally came with a vengeance. They shot and killed unarmed, wounded prisoners. Snipers intentionally targeted civilians, including the elderly, women and children as young as four. “The Americans are shooting anything that moves,” one horrified resident told CBS News.

Back with a vengeance…

Seventeen-year-old Hudda Fawzi Salam Issawi recounted what happened to her family the day the Marines returned to her city:

“On 9 November American marines came to our house. My father and the neighbour went to the door to meet them. We were not fighters. We thought we had nothing to fear. I ran into the kitchen to put on my veil, since men were going to enter our house and it would be wrong for them to see me with my hair uncovered. This saved my life. As my father and neighbour approached the door, the Americans opened fire on them. They died instantly.”

“Me and my 13 year old brother hid in the kitchen behind the fridge. The soldiers came into the house and caught my older sister. They beat her. Then they shot her. But they did not see me. Soon they left, but not before they had destroyed our furniture and stolen the money from my father’s pocket.”

Hudda comforted her dying sister by reading verses from the Quran. She died four hours later. Hudda and her surviving brother hunkered down with the decomposing bodies of their slain family for three days until hunger forced them out into the deadly city streets. They attempted to flee Fallujah but were spotted by a US sniper who shot her brother through the back, killing him instantly. Hudda was hit in the leg.

“I prepared myself to die,” she told Dr. Salam Ismael, “but I was found by an American woman soldier, and she took me to hospital.” Hudda was eventually reunited with the surviving members of her family. Many others weren’t so “lucky.”

American and Iraqi forces raided the General Hospital where they beat and tied up staff (including one doctor in the middle of delivering a baby), dragged patients from their beds, and strip- searched female doctors. Not only did US troops often refuse to aid injured civilians, they also attacked smaller medical clinics, killing patients and staff alike despite promises to spare them.

The Americans also used white phosphorus, a chemical and incendiary weapon banned for use against civilians. It ignites on contact with air and burns at nearly 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, scorching flesh straight through to the bone. Water does not extinguish it. It can cause a very slow, very agonizing death.

The slaughter of unarmed civilians went on for weeks. Operation Phantom Fury turned Fallujah into what one reporter from Britain’s Guardian called “a city of ghosts.” Rabid dogs and cats feasted on the rotting human corpses that littered the streets. Thousands of homes and dozens of mosques lay in ruins. Many of the ones left standing were vandalized. “Fuck Iraq and every Iraqi in it” was scrawled in lipstick on one woman’s living room mirror.

While American commanders lamented the loss of several dozen US and coalition troops, the shell-shocked residents of Fallujah were burying hundreds of their own dead. While nobody can say for sure exactly how many civilians perished in the fearsome American assault on the city, the Red Cross says the number is at least 800.

The war-ravaged people of Fallujah are still dealing with the effects of Vigilant Resolve and Phantom Fury. Some 200,000 residents who left have still not come home.

Those who remained have dealt with years of violence, economic hardship and devastated infrastructure. An extraordinary number of children born in the wake of the U.S. invasion have deadly cancers and severe deformities most likely linked to toxic weapons used by American forces. One doctor reported treating one birth defect every two months before the invasion; by 2010 she was treating a case a day. One child was born with six fingers, another with just one eye. Some come into the world with horribly twisted bodies. One was born with two heads.

Two-headed baby born in Fallujah (Photo: BBC)

American forces relied heavily upon depleted uranium (DU) munitions during the battle for Fallujah and in the wider Iraq war. Fired from tanks, planes, helicopters, in artillery shells and from guns, these radioactive rounds are extremely dense and ideal for piercing hardened armor. But when the shells explode on impact they release deadly dust particles that linger in the soil, water, food and air for many years. Four-and-a-half billion years, to be exact. People breathe the particles into their bodies, poisoning their organs, their blood, their nervous systems and their very DNA. While the Pentagon publicly states that DU is not known to cause any harm, an Army training manual warns that “contamination will make food and water unsafe for consumption” and requires soldiers coming within 80 feet of DU-contaminated material to wear protective clothing.

American military vehicles hit with DU “friendly fire” were buried in the Arabian desert after Operation Desert Storm, yet children are allowed to climb and play on the burnt-out hulks of Iraqi tanks blasted by DU rounds. Geiger counter readings of DU-contaminated sites in densely populated urban areas have consistently shown radiation levels that are 1,000 to 1,900 times higher than normal.

Sick veterans from Canada, Britain and the United States who submitted urine samples for testing were alarmed to discover uranium levels that sometimes exceeded 100 times the level considered safe. The same tests revealed that the majority of Iraqis from the southern city of Basra and 40% of Baghdad residents had elevated levels of depleted uranium in their urine as well. Yet the US military continued to insist that DU was safe.

Now you know how American troops “pacified” the terrorists of Fallujah– not to mention the non-terrorists of Fallujah and much of the rest of Iraq, for that matter, as well as generations of Iraqis yet to be born. It’s absolutely unbelievable how most Americans consider the Iraqis who fought to free their families, their homes and their country from foreign invasion and occupation to be terrorists, yet the US troops who purposely shot civilians, utilized horrific incendiary weapons in dense urban areas and fired off thousands of tons of radioactive munitions that have caused grotesque birth defects and poisoned the Iraqi soil for infinite generations to come are seen as liberating heroes.

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2 Comments

  1. AnnMay 31, 2012 at 9:31 pmReply

    You’re presenting a highly biased reported of events.

    1. Where is the proof that civilians were killed by snipers, and even if they had that it was American forces who did it? You also ignore the culpability of the families who chose to stay despite the extensive notice given by NATO forces, and the majority of their neighbors leaving. The death of that boy is a tragedy courtesy of his family refusing to leave. Had they changed their minds they could have chosen to surrender which they obviously didn’t, and put him in the crossfire. At that point there is little you can do.

    2. There WAS great care given to not hurting civilians. Civilians were allowed to leave the city, and most of the Fallujah residents did so. Those that weren’t were often used as human shields by the insurgency as a way to protect themselves, and use any injuries for propaganda purposes. Some of the civilians were actually forced to stay for this purpose. Others were shamelessly used to move weapons and intelligence within the city. Advanced warning of operations, and allowing noncombatants to leave is unprecedented in the history of urban warfare.

    3. Insurgents took advantage of the Law of War. Half the mosques in Fallujah held weapons cached, and insurgents would regularly engage NATO forces from hospitals ambulances, mosques, and other places forbidden from involvement in combat. They also would often play dead, or feign surrender to draw in NATO forces. Once they were within range the fighters would use grenades or rifles as a last ditch suicide attack. Corpses were often used to hide IEDs in.

    4. There is no way that photo is of white phosphorous burns. Actual WP contact would leave much more significant injury over a larger area. When WP was used it was to push insurgents refusing to surrender out of their hiding places instead of forcing NATO personnel to needlessly go headlong into their fortified positions in order to extricate insurgents who clearly had no qualms about martyrdom.

    5. It is impossible at the present time to accurately study the rates of birth defects, much less pinpoint the cause. Shoddy record keeping was the norm before OIF, and after wasn’t much better. On top of that there is such a disparity in pre and post battle population that it is impossible to accurately determine any trends. It is surprising difficult to suffer any radiation exposure from DU. It does not radiate the way a nuclear bomb would, and has to be handled to cause radiation exposure. Pointing the finger at DU ignores the decades of improperly testing, storing, and disposing of toxic chemicals by Saddam’s regime. There is also no evidence of NATO forces stationed in Fallujah suffering from similar health problems despite being subject to the same exposure Iraqis had.

    DU’s primary use is for tank armor, and armor piercing rounds. The only only ‘guns’ that use DU ammo are very high caliber Gatling weapons used primarily by AV-8Bs and AH-1Ws. Actual AV-8B use in Fallujah was very low as the real need was for precision guided munitions (again, to protect the civilians foolish enough to stick around.) The only other offensive use of DU is in armor piercing tank rounds. The military ceased using all other DU ammunition in the mid to late 1990s. Of course this is ignoring the numerous studies (from entities such as the Rand Corporation who have no ties to the military) that repeatedly found no link between DU and birth defects.

    6. I find Issawi’s story dubious at best. Why on Earth would military personnel in the thick of exhausting and vicious urban combat suddenly pause to beat and kill an obvious noncombatant, steal worthless Iraqi money, break some furniture, and then leave without bothering to check the house for insurgents and weapons caches? It’s ludicrous. No infantryman would EVER declare a house secure without checking it, and thereby setting themselves and other personnel up for attack in what was supposed to be a pacified area?

    For as widespread as these acts are purported to have been why has there been no legitimate evidence supporting any of it? There are occasional alleged first hand reports such as Ms Issawi’s, but the vast majority are all at best second hand. The reporting has all the hallmarks of urban legend instead of an actual event.

    • Brett WilkinsJune 2, 2012 at 5:54 pmReplyAuthor

      Thank you for reading my article, and thank you for taking the time to comment maturely with a thorough rebuttal. I will do my best to answer your questions.

      1. Civilians killed by US snipers: According to the BBC (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3653223.stm),British aid worker Jo Wilding and Fallujah doctor Salam al-Obaidi witnessed such attacks. Wilding, who was riding in a clearly-marked ambulance, was shot at by US snipers. “You can tell the shape of US marine from a mujahideen – even if you can only see a silhouette, the helmet and flak jacket are quite distinctive. Also, we were in a US-controlled part of town,” she told the BBC. Dr. al-Obaido said colleagues in an ambulance also were attacked by US snipers as they tried to enter a US-controlled area of the city. “Obaidi said a driver and paramedic in an ambulance were shot in a US-controlled area – one in the chest, the other in the eyes.The injured civilians inside the ambulance bled to death during the next two days as warning shots were fired when the team tried – four times – to return to collect the ambulance.”

      “Dr Obaidi and Ms Wilding described cases of women, children and old men who appeared to have been shot by US soldiers. Dr Obaidi said he had seen the bodies of two men, one aged about 70, the other about 50, both shot in the forehead, in an area controlled by the US. They had been lying at the front gate of their home for two days, he said, because the family did not dare step outside to retrieve the bodies.

      “Is he sure they were shot by US troops? ‘You are joking?” he said. ‘There are people dead in an area just controlled by America snipers. Nobody, either civilian or resistance, could enter the area. Who could kill them? We know American bullets. We are not a stupid people.'”

      “Ms Wilding said an injured mother and two children had told her they were hit by US gunmen as they tried to leave their house.She also said she met an old woman, shot in the abdomen, who was still clutching a white flag.”

      ALSO, you say I “ignore the culpability of the families who chose to stay despite the extensive notice given by NATO forces, and the majority of their neighbors leaving.” What about those– the old, sick, or very poor– who could not leave? Your statement reminds me of people who said that those who died in Hurricane Katrina were foolish or even culpable because they didn’t get out of New Orleans in time, despite ample warning. Also, US forces surrounded Fallujah and refused to allow any male between ages 15 to 55 to leave, another clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. (http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,138376,00.html) It was preposterously presumed that every single last one of them was an insurgent. “We were told… that every single person that was walking, talking, breathing was an enemy combatant,” said Iraq veteran Jeff Englehart, “As such, every single person that was walking down the street or in a house was a target.”

      2. Without getting into the veracity of your assertions regarding the actions of Iraqi resistance fighters, I will admit that US forces took what can only be described as great care to avoid civilian casualties (as compared to other urban battles), as evidenced by the relatively low civilian death toll. We’re not talking about tens of thousands, or even thousands, of dead, something you’d expect in such a situation. But still, as abortion foes are fond of saying, one dead baby is one dead baby too many.

      3. I will assume what you say about insurgents is true. I am a student of US atrocities, not insurgent atrocities. So assuming your statements are all true, I’ll ask this: so what? What you say is reminiscent of how the British spoke of the American revolutionaries who used ambush and asymmetrical warfare to overcome the superiority of their troops who lined up in gentlemanly lines in their bright red coats. Remember that 1980s film ‘Red Dawn’ with Patrick Swayze, about a Soviet invasion of America? Remember how the kids in that film resisted? That’s exactly how the Iraqis resisted the foreign invasion and occupation of their country. The US, on the other hand, is signatory to international treaties and conventions as well as our supposed moral superiority. If America was willing to concede that we occupy no such moral high ground and that we were invading and occupying an ancient and proud people on dubious grounds, I would be less critical of our methods. But our (mis)leaders try to act like they’re superior to our enemies while ignoring the fact that A) Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, and B) US interventionism has killed far more people in Muslim countries than Islamic terrorism has killed Americans. By a factor of 50 or more.

      4. The photo is indeed of white phosphorus burns, but I must admit that it is not from Iraq. It was taken after an Israeli attack on Gaza. I should, and will, remove it. The US has admitted using WP against insurgents, but one must remember that in the close-quarter urban environment, tens of thousands of civilians were also at risk of being harmed.

      5. While it may be very difficult to ascertain the cause of birth defects, the fact remains that they increased 15-fold in a one-year period. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/nov/13/falluja-cancer-children-birth-defects) As we all know, there were no WMDs found in Iraq, so to blame new defects on contaminants that have not existed in Iraq in 20 years does not seem to make sense. And as for effects on US troops, if it wasn’t extremely dangerous, why do Army training manuals warns that “contamination will make food and water unsafe for consumption” and require soldiers coming within 80 feet of DU-contaminated material to wear protective clothing? (http://www.commondreams.org/headlines03/0804-04.htm) I could also argue the (at least) possible link between DU and Gulf War syndrome, but the jury is still very much out on that, so it would be irresponsible of me to do so.

      6. With any eyewitness account, the is always the possibility of exaggeration or fabrication. I will only say that the source for this quote is al-Jazeera, one of the most credible news channels in the world. It has won numerous international awards for the quality and balance of its reporting and is more credible than most US news networks, despite its demonization here in America. And without exhausting myself digging up every example I can find, I am sure you will agree with me that there have been many, many instances of US troops beating and robbing (not to mention raping and murdering) in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have heard it from their own mouths, as I work with groups such as IVAW staffed with veterans of those wars. Even my friends who fought in Iraq and who believe in the war said they abused “hajjis” on a regular basis and had little regard for their well-being.

      Like I said, I am a student of US atrocities. I have spent the last six years writing a book about them after discovering (I was a hard-core, flag-waving, conservative for 30 years) through self-education that “their” atrocities against “us” are always evil, barbaric, etc while “our” atrocities against “them” are always justified, exceptional or, usually, swept under the carpet.

      And as you said in the opening line of your comment, charges of “bias” may not be unwarranted. I never claim to present a balanced, or even contextual account of events. I merely state the war crimes and atrocities committed by US troops using first-hand accounts where possible, and only the most credible media sources at all other times. I do not exaggerate or fabricate, and if proven wrong, I will adjust accordingly. We hear enough of the “official narrative” from the corporate mainstream media. My job is to present the facts in an apolitical fashion (I believe Obama is almost as much of a war criminal as Bush, and Carter, the so-called ‘human rights’ president, supported genocide in Indonesia as much as Reagan supported death squads that raped, tortured and murdered hundreds of thousands of Central American peasants using US-authored torture and murder manuals).

      Again, I thank you for reading my site and commenting in a non-abusive, eminently well-thought manner. You’d be surprised at how rare that is.

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