Aleppo and Fallujah.

In light of the civilian disaster unfolding presently in Aleppo, it is timely to revisit the uncontradicted claims unwarranted action against civilians in Fallujah supervised by Australian military commander, Jim Molan. This piece was first published in 2008. If correct, the claims are an indictment on Australia’s military presence back then in Fallujah.  What now passes for legitimate military action when civilians are so exposed? John Menadue.

The report from On Line Opinion, 4 August 2008, follows:  

The reality of Australia’s collateral damage in Iraq.

Few in this country have heard of Australian General Jim Molan, despite his direct command responsibility for the brutal Coalition assault on Fallujah and other Sunni cities in Iraq in late 2004. Molan was seconded from the ADF to the US command and was the third highest ranking Coalition officer in Iraq in 2004-2005. He not only planned, but also directed, the late 2004 attacks on Najaf, Fallujah, and Samarra.

Fallujah is particularly notorious for the widespread and well documented allegations of serious atrocities, if not outright war crimes, committed by Coalition troops under Molan’s command. Noam Chomsky (in Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy) has described these allegations as “far more severe than the [Abu Ghraib] torture scandals”.

Molan has just released a book, entitled Running the War in Iraq. An edited extract from the book, “Reality of Collateral Damage” appeared in The Australian on July 19 [2008].

General Molan’s excerpt is a highly sanitised version of what actually occurred under his command. Molan’s account suggests that the attack on Fallujah, codenamed Operation Fury, was little more than a few surgical missile strikes which unfortunately and only occasionally resulted in civilian deaths.

He conveniently omits the fact that an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 civilians still remained in Fallujah when the attack began. Citizens had been instructed to evacuate the city, population 250,000, before bombing began in October 2004, but any and all men aged 15 to 45 were prohibited from leaving. Many family members understandably chose to stay with their fathers and brothers. Once the bombing began, all exits out of the city were sealed off.

On October 16, the Washington Post reported that “electricity and water were cut off to the city just as a fresh wave of [bombing] strikes began Thursday night, an action that US forces also took at the start of assaults on Najaf and Samarra”. The Red Cross and other aid agencies were also denied access to deliver the most basic of humanitarian aid – water, food, and emergency medical supplies to the civilian population.

The situation was so severe that the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, stated that the Coalition had used “hunger and deprivation of water as a weapon of war against the civilian population [in] flagrant violation” of the Geneva Conventions. Specifically Article 14, which clearly states that cutting off water, electricity, and denying access to humanitarian aid is considered to be a war crime.

But it gets worse, much worse. On November 7, a New York Times front page story detailed how the Coalition’s ground campaign was launched by seizing Fallujah’s only hospital: “Patients and hospital employees were rushed out of the rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs.” The story also revealed the motive for attacking the hospital: “The offensive also shut down what officers said was a propaganda weapon for the militants: Fallujah General Hospital with its stream of reports of civilian casualties”. The city’s two medical clinics were also bombed and destroyed.

In his excerpt, Molan also clearly views any non Coalition approved reporting of civilian deaths as propaganda. His contempt is thinly veiled: “Within an hour of the strike, some Arab network would broadcast pictures of the scene and assessments by so-called spokesmen in the local hospital, listing the number of women and children who had been “slaughtered by the crusaders”.

Independent American journalist Dahr Jamail interviewed scores of Fallujah survivors after the assault. He documented eye witness accounts of US troops denying the Red Cross entry to Fallujah to deliver medical aid, and firing on ambulances trying to enter the city.

You don’t need a degree in international law to know that attacking a hospital and denying medical treatment is beyond any reasonable bounds of war. The fourth Geneva Convention strictly forbids attacks on hospitals, medical emergency vehicles and any impeding of medical operations.

Molan’s account also neglects to mention the now irrefutable evidence that chemical weapons, specifically white phosphorous, were used under his command on Fallujah. Irrefutable because US Colonel Barry Venable admitted it to the UK’s Independent newspaper a year later. “Yes, it was used as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants”. US soldiers had written in a military journal (PDF 1.13MB) that white phosphorous (wp) was such “an effective and versatile munition” that commanders “saved our WP for lethal missions”.

In a November 2005 editorial denouncing its use, the New York Times described white phosphorous: “Packed into an artillery shell, it explodes over a battlefield in a white glare that can illuminate an enemy’s positions. It also rains balls of flaming chemicals, which cling to anything they touch and burn until their oxygen supply is cut off. They can burn for hours inside a human body.”

Again, one does not have to be an international legal expert to know that the use of chemical weapons is considered to be a war crime, and a particularly heinous one. We are particularly aware of this thanks to The Australian and other Murdoch press, which told us ad nauseam in the lead up to the invasion that there was no better proof of the need to remove Saddam Hussein by force than his use of the same white phosphorous on the Kurds.

For the record, Protocol III of the UN Convention on Certain Weapons Which May Be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects (1980) bans the use of incendiary weapons against military targets in areas with concentration of civilians. Australia is a signatory.

Further allegations of atrocities occurred when US and Iraqi troops entered Fallujah. Jamail reports first hand accounts of US snipers shooting women and children in the streets; unarmed men shot while seeking safe passage with their wives and children under a white flag; photographers shot as they filmed battle. And in images captured by journalist Kevin Sites and beamed around the world on November 9, a U.S. marine was shown to approach a clearly wounded man lying on the floor of a mosque. The marine then fired his rife directly into the man, said “He’s done”, and casually walked away.

Relatively few insurgents were found once the city was subdued; most had, predictably, fled the city long before the assault began. Meanwhile an estimated 70 per cent of the city was utterly destroyed, with thousands dead (Jamail and Fadhil 2006).

More alarming than what Molan omitted in his excerpt is what he actually included. He details how leaflets dropped on Fallujah just prior to the attack contained the message “Foreign terrorists will stay until Iraq has burned to the ground – Do not let these criminals destroy your future.” Does he really expect us not to see the irony? Or even more disturbing, does he really not see the irony?

His account of what a bullet actually does is particularly chilling: “A bullet achieves its effect by transferring kinetic energy to a human body, something that does not go far in winning the heart or mind.”

Molan claims, and perhaps even believes, that his actions “represented the rule of law”. In writing about the “terrorists”, Molan succinctly expresses the view of many in the international community regarding the Coalition in Iraq: “But there are rules; they just did not obey them. In fact they institutionalised the transgression of international law.”

There is little evidence to suggest that the resistance emanating from Fallujah was anything other than Fallujans fighting an occupation they believed to be illegal and unjust, a view shared by good deal of the planet. Yet Molan doggedly holds onto the long warn out US propaganda view that there were just a few extreme “terrorists” who could be singled out: “They went to Fallujah to hide among the people but committed mindless acts of violence against them. They set up local religious courts and Fallujans were tried and punished, even tortured and executed, if they did not commit to extreme fundamentalist Islamic ideology and sharia law.”

While he does not provide evidence to support this claim, regardless, it is stunning to suggest that this was somehow a worse fate than what awaited ordinary Iraqis at Abu Ghraib, the scandal of which had broken months earlier. Or what clearly awaited them once the assault on their city began under his direct command.

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 characterises 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.

Christopher Doran is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Political Economy at Macquarie University.

This article was first published in On Line Opinion on 8 August 2008.

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