By Dahr Jamail
One of the least reported aspects of the U.S. occupation of Iraq is the oftentimes indiscriminate use of air power by the American military. The Western mainstream media has generally failed to attend to the F-16 warplanes dropping their payloads of 500, 1,000, and 2,000-pound bombs on Iraqi cities -– or to the results of these attacks. While some of the bombs and missiles fall on resistance fighters, the majority of the casualties are civilian –- mothers, children, the elderly, and other unarmed civilians.
“Coalition troops and Iraqi security forces may be responsible for up to 60% of conflict-related civilian deaths in Iraq — far more than are killed by insurgents, confidential records obtained by the BBC’s Panorama programme reveal.” As the BBC reported recently, these numbers were compiled by Iraq’s Ministry of Health, in part because of the refusal of the Bush and Blair administrations to do so. In the case of Fallujah, where the U.S. military estimated 2,000 people were killed during the recent assault on the city, at least 1,200 of the dead are believed to have been non-combatant civilians.
“Some of my friends in Fallujah, their homes were attacked by airplanes so they left, and nobody s found them since,” said Mehdi Abdulla in a refugee camp in Baghdad. His own home was bombed to rubble by American warplanes during the assault on Fallujah in November — and in Iraq today, his experience is far from unique.
All any reporter has to do is cock an ear or look up to catch the planes roaring over Baghdad en route to bombing missions over Mosul, Fallujah and other trouble spots on a weekly – sometimes even a daily basis. It is simply impossible to travel the streets of Baghdad without seeing several Apache or Blackhawk helicopters buzzing the rooftops. Their rumbling blades are so close to the ground and so powerful that they leave wailing car alarms in their wake as they pass over any neighborhood.
With its ground troops stretched thin and growing haggard — 30% of them, after all, are already on their second tour of duty in the brutal occupation of Iraq – U.S. military commanders appear to be relying more than ever on airpower to give themselves an edge. The November assault on Fallujah did not even begin until warplanes had, on a near-daily basis, dropped 500-1000 pound bombs on suspected resistance targets in the besieged city. During that period, fighter jets ripped through the air over Baghdad for nights on end, heading out on mission after mission to drop their payloads on Fallujah.
“Airpower remains the single greatest asymmetrical advantage the United States has over its foes,” writes Thomas Searle, a military defense analyst with the Airpower Research Institute at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. “To make airpower truly effective against guerrillas in that war, we cannot wait for the joint force commander or the ground component commander to tell us what to do. Rather, we must aggressively develop and employ airpower’s counterguerrilla capabilities.”
“Aggressively employ airpower’s capabilities” — indeed they have.
“Even the Chickens and Sheep Are Frightened”
“The first day of Ramadan we went to the prayers and, just as the Imam said Allahu Akbar (“God is great”), the jets began to arrive.” Abu Hammad was remembering the early stages of the November Fallujah campaign. “They came continuously through the night and bombed everywhere in Fallujah. It did not stop even for a moment.”
The 35 year-old merchant is now a refugee living in a tent on the campus of the University of Baghdad along with over 900 other homeless Fallujans. “If the American forces did not find a target to bomb,” he said, “they used sound bombs just to terrorize the people and children. The city stayed in fear; I cannot give you a picture of how panicked everyone was.” As he spoke in a strained voice, his body began to tremble with the memories, “In the morning, I found Fallujah empty, as if nobody lived in it. It felt as though Fallujah had already been bombed to the ground. As if nothing were left.”
When Abu Hammad says “nothing,” he means it. It is now estimated that 75% of the homes and buildings in the city were destroyed either by warplanes, helicopters, or artillery barrages; most of the remaining 25% sustained at least some damage as well.
“Even the telephone exchange in Fallujah has been flattened,” he added between quickening breaths because, as he remembers, as he makes the effort to explain, his rage grows. “Nothing works in Fallujah now!”
Several men standing with us, all of whom are refugees like Hammad, nod in agreement while staring off toward the setting sun to the west, the direction where their city once stood.
Throughout much of urban Iraq, people tell stories of being terrorized by American airpower, often which is often loosed on heavily populated neighborhoods that have, in effect, been declared the bombing equivalents of free-fire zones.
“There is no limit to the American aggression,” comments a sheikh from Baquba, a city 30 miles northeast of the capital. He agreed to discuss the subject of air power only on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals from the U.S. military.
“The fighter jets regularly fly so low over our city that you can see the pilots sitting in the cockpit,” he tells me, using his hand to measure the skyline and indicate just how low he means. “The helicopters fly even lower, so low, and aim their guns at the people and this terrifies everyone. How can humans live like this? Even our animals, the chickens and sheep are frightened by this. We don’t know why they do this to us.”
“My Whole House Was Shaking”
The terror from the air began on the first day of the invasion in March, 2003.. “On March 19th at two AM, we were sleeping,” Abdulla Mohammed, father of four children,, says softly as we sit in his modest home in Baghdad. “I woke up with a start to the enormous blasts of the bombs. All I could do was watch the television and see that everything was being bombed in Baghdad.”
Near his home, a pile of concrete blocks and twisted support beams that once was a telephone exchange remains as an ugly reminder of how the war started for Baghdadis. “I was so terrified. My whole house was shaking,” he continues, “and the windows were breaking. I was frightened that the ceiling would fall on us because of the bombs.”
Nearly two years later, he still becomes visibly upset while describing what it felt like to live through that first horrific “shock and awe” onslaught from the air. “It was unbelievable to see things in my house jump into the air when the bombs landed. They were just so powerful.” He pauses and holds his hands up in a gesture of helplessness before he says, “Nowhere felt safe and there was nothing we could do. People were looking for bread and vegetables so they could survive in their homes, but they didn’t know where to go because nowhere was safe.”
He lives with his wife and sons in central Baghdad, but at a location several miles from where the heaviest bombings in the Bush administration’s shock-and-awe campaign hit. Nevertheless, even at that distance in the heavily populated capital, it was a nightmare. “Everyone was so terrified. Even the guards who were on the streets left for their homes because everything was being destroyed,” he says. “The roads were closed because there were so many explosions.”
“My family was shivering with fear,” he adds, staring at the floor. “Everyone was praying for God to keep the Americans from bombing them. There was no water, no electricity, and all we had were the extra supplies that we had bought before.”
Like the sheikh from Baquba, he and his family continue to live in fear of what American warplanes and helicopters might at any moment unleash. “Now, there are always helicopters hovering over my neighborhood. They are so loud and fly so close. My sons are afraid of them. I hear the fighter jets so often.”
He suddenly raises his hushed voice and you can hear the note of panic deep within it. “Even last night the fighter jets were so low over my home. We never know if they will bomb.” After pausing, he concludes modestly, “We can only hope that they won’t.”
“Even the Mosques Quit Announcing Evening Prayers…”
There is no way to discuss American reliance on air power in a war now largely being fought inside heavily populated cities without coming back to Fallujah. While an estimated 200,000 refugees from that city continue to live in refugee tent camps or crowded into houses (with up to 25 families crammed under a single roof), horrendous tales of what it was like to live under the bombs in the besieged city are only now beginning to emerge.
Ahmed Abdulla, a gaunt 21 year-old Fallujan, accompanied most of his family on their flight from the city, navigating the perilous neighborhoods nearest the cordon the American military had thrown around their besieged city. On November 8, he made it to Baghdad with his mother, his three sisters (aged 26, 20, and 18), and two younger brothers (10 and 12). His father, however, was not permitted to leave Fallujah by the U.S. military because he was of “fighting age.” Ahmed was only allowed to exit the besieged city because his mother managed to convince an American soldier that, without him, his sisters and younger brothers would be at great risk traveling alone. Fortunately, the soldier understood her plea and let him through.
Ahmed’s father told the family that he would instead stay to watch over their house. “The house is all we have, nothing else,” commented Ahmed despondently. “We have no land, no livestock, nothing.”
Recounting an odyssey of flight typical of those of many Fallujans, Ahmed told me his father had driven them in the family car across winding, desert roads out the eastern side of the city, considered the quietest area when it came to the fighting. They stopped the car a kilometer before the American checkpoints and walked the rest of the way, holding up white “flags” so the soldiers wouldn’t mistake them for insurgents. “We walked with our hands up, expecting them to shoot at us anytime,” said Ahmed softly, “It was so bad for us at that time and there were so many families trying to get out.”
Those inhabitants still trapped in the city had only two hours each day to emerge and try to find food. Most of the time their electricity was cut and water ran in the faucets only intermittently. “Every night we told each other goodbye because we expected to die,” he said. “Every night there was extremely heavy bombing from the jets. My house shook when bombs hit the city, and the women were crying all of the time.” In his mind he still couldn’t shake the buzzing sound of unmanned surveillance drone aircraft passing overhead, and the constant explosions of the “concussion bombs” (or so he called them) that he claimed the Americans fired just to keep people awake.
“I saw a dead man near our home,” he explained, “But I could barely see his face because there were so many flies on him. The flies were so thick and I couldn’t bear the smell. All around his body, his blood had turned the ground black. I don’t know how he died.”
The sighting of such bodies, often shot by American snipers, was a commonplace around the city. They lay unburied in part because many families dared not venture out to one of the two football stadiums that had been converted into “Martyr Cemeteries.” Instead, they buried their own dead in their gardens and left the other bodies where they lay.
“So we stayed inside most of the time and prayed. The more the bombs exploded the more we prayed and cried.” So Ahmed described life inside Fallujah as it was being destroyed. Each night in the besieged city seemed, as he put it, to oscillate between an eerie quiet and sudden bursts of heavy fighting. “Even the mosques quit announcing evening prayers at times,” he said. “And then it would be so quiet — except for the military drones buzzing overhead and the planes of the Americans which dropped flares.”
It was impossible, he claimed, to sleep at night because any sound — an approaching fighter jet or helicopter — and immediately everyone would be awake. “We would begin praying together loudly and strongly. For God to protect us and to take the fighting away from our city and our home.”
Any semblance of normalcy had, of course, long since left the environs of Fallujah; schools had been closed for weeks; there were dire shortages of medicine and medical equipment; and civilians still trapped in the city had a single job -– somehow to stay alive. When you emerged, however briefly, nothing was recognizable. “You could see areas where all the houses were flattened. There was just nothing left,” he explained. “We could get water at times, but there was no electricity, ever.”
His family used a small generator that they ran sparingly because they could not get more fuel. “We ran out of food after they Americans started to invade the city, so we ate flour, and then all we had was dirty water…so eventually what choice did we have but to try to get out?”
“Why do the Americans bomb all of us in our homes,” asked Ahmed as our interview was ending. And you could feel his puzzlement. “Even those of us who do not fight, we are suffering so much because of the U.S. bombs and tanks. Can’t they see this is turning so many people against them?”
“I Saw Cluster Bombs Everywhere”
Fifty-three year-old Mohammad Ali, who is living in a tent city in Baghdad, was one of those willing to address the suffering he experienced as a result of the November bombings. Mohammad is a bear of a man, his kind face belying his deep despair as he leans on a worn, wooden cane. He summed up his experience this way: “We did not feel that there was an Eid [the traditional feasting time which follows Ramadan] after Ramadan this year because our situation was so bad. All we had was more fasting. I asked God to save us but our house was bombed and I lost everything.”
Refugees aren’t the only people ready to describe what occurred in Fallujah as a result of the loosing of jets, bombers, and helicopters on the city. Burhan Fasa’a, a gaunt 33 year-old journalist is a cameraman for the Lebanese Broadcasting Company. He was inside the city during the first eight days of the November assault. “I saw at least 200 families whose homes had collapsed on them, thanks to American bombs,” he said. “I saw a huge number of people killed in the northern part of the city and most of them were civilians.”
Like so many others I’ve talked with who made it out of Fallujah, he described scenes of widespread death and desolation in what had not so long before been a modest-sized city. Most of these resulted from bombings that – despite official announcements emphasizing how “targeted” and “precise” they were – seemed to those on the receiving end unbearably indiscriminate.
“There were so many people wounded, and with no medical supplies, people died from their wounds,” he said. He also spoke of cluster bombs, which, he — and many other Fallujan witnesses — claim, were used by the military in November as well as during the earlier failed Marine siege of the city in April. The dropping of cluster bombs in areas where civilians live is a direct contravention of the Geneva Conventions.
“I saw cluster bombs everywhere,” he said calmly, “and so many bodies that were burned — dead with no bullets in them.”
A doctor, who fled Fallujah after the attacks began and is now working in a hospital in a small village outside the city, spoke in a similar vein (though she requested that her name not be used): “They shot all the sheep. Any animals people owned were shot,” she said. “Helicopters shot all the animals and anything that moved in the villages surrounding Fallujah.”
“I saw one dead body I remember all too well. My first where there were bubbles on the skin, and abnormal coloring, and burn holes in his clothing.” She also described treating patients who, she felt certain, had been struck by chemical and white-phosphorous-type weapons. “And I saw so many bodies with these strange signs, and none of them with bullet holes or obvious injuries, just dead with discoloring and that bubbled skin, dark blue skin with bubbles on it, and burned clothing. I saw this with my own eyes. These bodies were in the center of Fallujah, in old Fallujah.”
Like Burhan, while in the city she too witnessed many civilian buildings bombed to the ground. “I saw two schools bombed, and all the houses around them too.”
“Why Was Our Family Bombed?”
I was offered another glimpse of what it’s like to live in a city under attack from the air by two sisters, Muna and Selma Salim, also refugees from Fallujah and the only survivors of a family of ten, the rest of whom were killed when two rockets fired from a U.S. fighter jet hit their home. Their mother, Hadima, 65 years old, died in the attack along with her son Khalid, an Iraqi police captain, his sister Ka’ahla and her 22 year-old son, their pregnant 45 year-old sister Adhra’a, her husband Samr, who had a doctorate in religious studies, and their four year-old son Amorad.
Muna, still exhausted from her ordeal, wept almost constantly while telling her story. Even her abaya, which fully covers her, could not hide her shaking body as waves of grief rolled through her tiredness. She was speaking of her dead sister Artica. “I can’t get the image out of my mind of her fetus being blown out of her body,” said Muna. Artica was seven months pregnant when, on November 10, the rockets struck. “My sister Selma and I survived only because we were staying at our neighbor’s house that night,” she said, sobbing, still unable to reconcile her survival with the death of most of the rest of her family in the fierce pre-assault bombing of the city.
“There were no fighters in our area, so I don’t know why they bombed our home,” cried Muna. “When this happened there were ongoing full-scale assaults from the air and tanks were attacking our city, so we slipped out of the eastern side of Fallujah and came to Baghdad.”
Selma, Muna’s 41 year-old sister, recounted scenes of destruction in the city — houses that had been razed by countless air strikes and the stench of decaying bodies that swirled through the air borne on the area’s dry, dusty winds.
“The rubble from the bombed houses covered up the bodies, and nobody could get to them because people were too afraid even to drive a bulldozer!” She held out her hands as she spoke, as if to ask her God how such things could happen. “Even walking out of your house was just about impossible because of the snipers.”
Both sisters described their last months in Fallujah as a nightmarish existence. It was a city where fighters controlled the area, medicine and food were often in short supply, and the thumping concussions of U.S. bombs had become a daily reality. Rocket-armed attack helicopters rattled low over the desert as they approached the city only adding to the nightmarish landscape.
“Even when the bombs were far away, glasses would fall off our shelves and break,” exclaimed Muna. Going to market, as they had to, in the middle of the day to buy food for their family, both sisters felt constant fear of warplanes roaring over the sprawling city. “The jets flew over so often,” said Selma, “but we never knew when they would drop their bombs.”
They described a desolate city of closed shops and mostly empty streets on which infrequent terrorized residents could be spotted simply wandering around not knowing what to do. “Fallujah was like a ghost town most of the time,” was the way Muna put it. “Most families stayed inside their houses all the time, only going out for food when they had to.” Like many others, their family soon found that it needed to ration increasingly scarce food and water, “Usually we were very hungry because we didn’t want to eat our food, or drink all of the water.” She paused, took a deep breath undoubtedly thinking of her dead parents and siblings, and added, “We never knew if we would be able to get more, so we tried to be careful.”
I met the two sisters in the Baghdad home of their uncle. During the interview, both of them often stared at the ground silently until another detail would come to mind to be added to their story. Unlike Muna who was visibly emotional, Selma generally spoke in a flat voice without affect that might indeed have emerged from some dead zone. “Our situation then was like that of so many from Fallujah,” she told me. “None of us could leave because we had nowhere to go and no money.”
“Why was our family bombed?” pleaded Muna, tears streaming down her cheeks, “There were never any fighters in our area!”
Today fighting continues on nearly a daily basis around Fallujah, as well as in many other cities throughout Iraq; and for reporters as well as residents of Baghdad, the air war is an omnipresent reality. Helicopters buzz the tops of buildings and hover over neighborhoods in the capital all the time, while fighter jets often scorch the skies.
Below them, traumatized civilians await the next onslaught, never knowing when it may occur.
Dahr Jamail is an independent journalist who has been reporting from Iraq since November, 2003.
Copyright C2005 Dahr Jamail
This piece first appeared at Tomdispatch.com.