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 percent 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 noncombatant 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 percent
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 500-1,000-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
"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 percent of the homes and buildings in the city were destroyed either
by warplanes, helicopters, or artillery barrages; most of the remaining 25 percent
sustained at least some damage.
"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, 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 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 19 at 2 a.m., 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
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 Nov.
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 the 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 that 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. 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
"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 10, 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 4-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 Nov. 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
"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.
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch with an introduction by Tom Engelhardt.