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November 12, 2004

A Distant Mirror of Holy War


by Norman Solomon

The conflict in Iraq has become a holy war. In both directions.

On the surface, the most prominent headline on the New York Times front page Nov. 10 was simply matter-of-fact: "In Taking Fallujah Mosque, Victory by the Inch." Yet it's not mere happenstance that American forces have bombed many of Fallujah's mosques.

For public consumption, U.S. military officers – like their civilian bosses and American journalists – usually discuss this war in secular, even antiseptic terms. When the Times quoted Marine battalion commander Gary Brandl in another front-page story, on Nov. 6, the lieutenant colonel sounded straightforward: "We are going to rid the city of insurgents. If they do fight, we will kill them."

However, on the same day, the Associated Press reported that the same Lt. Col. Brandl said: "The enemy has got a face. He's called Satan. He's in Fallujah, and we're going to destroy him."

That statement by Brandl – an officer with 800 soldiers under his command – caused a bit of stir in some Internet circles. But mainstream U.S. media outlets scarcely noted his holy-warrior declaration. Most news outlets ignored it entirely.

Providing a fuller, more revealing quote from Lt. Col. Brandl, the Sunday Times of London included a lead-in sentence: "The Marines that I have had wounded over the past five months have been attacked by a faceless enemy. But the enemy has got a face. He's called Satan...." In other words, Satan started this conflict. And we – the anti-Satan forces – fully intend to finish it by destroying him.

Sounds very fundamentalist.

Sounds a lot like Osama bin Laden.

In public-relations terms, the colonel was a tad off-message. Except for occasional lapses, the rhetoric from Washington stops short of proclaiming a crusade against Islamic devils. And the U.S. news coverage rarely fails to detour around the American side of the jihad equation.

During a real holy war, of course, the fire and brimstone is not just figurative. Dominating the top half of the New York Times front page on Nov. 10 was a full-color picture with stunning hues and brilliant composition, over this caption: "Marines tried to take cover after a phosphorous round, set off to help provide cover for tanks, rained down on the unit. No one was seriously hurt." An article inside mentioned that the phosphorous broke "into a hundred flaming pieces ... burning backpacks and gear but seriously hurting no one." Reassuring.

Meanwhile, a Washington Post article provided more graphic – though sketchy – information about phosphorous. "Some artillery guns fired white phosphorous rounds that create a screen of fire that cannot be extinguished with water," the Post explained more than 20 paragraphs into the story. "Insurgents reported being attacked with a substance that melted their skin, a reaction consistent with white phosphorous burns."

The Post quoted hospital physician Kamal Hadeethi: "The corpses of the mujahedin which we received were burned, and some corpses were melted."

But such melting of human flesh is an abstraction in U.S. media, as it is apt to be for holy warriors. On NBC's Today show Nov. 9, a network correspondent in Baghdad mentioned phosphorous shells just long enough to say that they are "meant to burn through metal bunkers." Presumably a description of effects on human beings would not have gone well with viewers' breakfasts.

A live report from a CNN correspondent in Fallujah, on Nov. 8, was similarly circumspect: "Tanks have been blasting away inside the city, and shells filled with phosphorous – shells to hide the movement of the Marines inside the city – have been exploding overhead."

The CNN reporter added that, along with gunfire from the city, "We have also heard, even from our distance about two kilometers away, chants of 'Allah Akbar' going up from the insurgents, the chants of 'God is great' going up from the insurgents."

Lt. Col. Brandl, like his commander in chief, would doubtless scorn such prayerful chants as satanic. The holy warriors from America are blessed with superior military strength, which includes the capacity to melt human flesh ... and to drop large quantities of cluster bombs – one of the most inhuman weapons on the planet – from sleek A-10 jets flying over Fallujah. Children often pick up not-yet-exploded cluster bombs because they look like toys.

At the outset of the new assault, U.S. forces captured Fallujah's general hospital. "In terms of the information war, the hospital was indeed the most strategic of targets," international correspondent Pepe Escobar writes. "During the first siege of Fallujah in April, doctors told independent media the real story about the suffering of civilian victims. So this time the Pentagon took no chances: no gory, disturbing photos of the elderly, women, and children ... the civilian victims of the relentless bombing."

From Fallujah, on Nov. 9, journalist Fadhil Badrani – a resident of the city who reports for the BBC World Service – said that "a medical dispensary in the city center was bombed." He added: "I don't know what has happened to the doctors and patients who were there. It was last place you could get medical attention because the big hospital on the outskirts of Fallujah was captured by the Americans on Monday. A lot of the mosques have also been bombed. For the first time in Fallujah, a city of 1,200 mosques, I did not hear a single call to prayer this morning."

While the U.S. media are downplaying the available information about Iraqi people suffering in Fallujah, many Arabic-language outlets have a different news agenda. Escobar reports in the Nov. 11 edition of Asia Times Online: "The main story playing in the Arab world in the past 24 hours is that of Mohammed Abboud – who saw his 9-year-old son bleed to death of shrapnel wounds when his house in Fallujah was hit because he could not venture out to go to a hospital. Abboud had to bury his son in his own garden."

As the United States government terrorizes and murders in the name of fighting terrorism and murder, the message from Washington is that its holy war of might is unquestionably right. On the Nov. 10 front page of the New York Times, a dispatch from Fallujah reported: "Nothing here makes sense, but the Americans' superior training and firepower eventually seem to prevail." Americans are encouraged to assume that Allah may be great but the red-white-and-blue God is surely greater.


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  • Norman Solomon is author of the new book War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.

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