We need to be clear on what is about to happen in the Iraqi city of Falluja, about 64 kilometres west of Baghdad and a key centre of Sunni population in Iraq. This city has for many months held out as a centre of Sunni-based political-military resistance, refusing to accept the authority either of the former US-led occupying authority nor, since July, of the interim Iraqi administration led by the Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi.
Falluja is now to be brought to heel by overwhelming military power. As I write this, the US attack on the city has begun. The message to Falluja from the US armed forces in Iraq and from Allawi was brutally simple: submit now to Baghdad’s authority or face attack.
It is still possible that resistance in Falluja will melt away in the face of US attack. While this would be a more optimistic scenario, I think it more likely at this point that the insurgents will fight, because too much is at stake politically for them to accept a bloodless Allawi victory. I look here at the–in my judgement, now more likely–scenario that Falluja insurgents will dig in and defy the invasion force.
What I believe is then likely to be done to Falluja will be a war crime and crime against humanity, morally indefensible by any civilised standard or for that matter, by the Statute of the International Criminal Court (to which, conveniently, neither the US nor Iraqi Government adheres).
This will be no neat, surgical strike. To get the measure of this, think of the Warsaw rising in 1944, or the Russian Army’s destruction of the Chechen capital, Grozny. In 1999 this already battered city (of originally 400,000 people) was finally destroyed by massive Russian bombardment. Today, insurgents still fight it out with Russian troops among the ruins.
Eighteen months ago, before the US-led invasion of Iraq, Falluja was a living city of 300,000 people. Now–depopulated of most of its civilians by intimidation and fear–what is left looks like it is about to be blasted out of existence, simply as a demonstration of overwhelming US power in Iraq.
Of course, the US Army has been for weeks “humanely” encouraging women and children to leave the encircled city through checkpoints while there is still time to save their lives.
The Russians did the same before and during the destruction of Grozny. In a few days, as the battle and the flight of civilians expands, there may be tens of thousands of new refugees in tent cities, and tens of thousands of women left without husbands, and children left without fathers.
If this attack goes ahead as appears inevitable, it will obviously breach the laws of war and the Geneva conventions. First, it will grossly exceed proportionality in terms of ends and means. What intended political or military objective could justify so much death, the creation of so many new refugees, and wholesale destruction of homes?
What threat does the city of Falluja pose to the Iraqi state at this point? Allawi has claimed that free elections cannot take place unless Falluja is subdued. What a spurious argument.
The truth is that this city, which has become a symbol of Sunni-Iraqi political resistance to the occupiers, is to be made an example of, to deter others. The message the siege of Falluja sends is brutally simple: resist us and we will destroy you. It is the same message that the Wehrmacht sent in Warsaw in 1944, and the Russian Army in Grozny in 1999.
This attack will also violate the rules of war and the Geneva conventions in having grossly indiscriminate effects on civilians and civilian homes and infrastructure. America’s largely untrained in battle but over-armed forces will start their attack “humanely”, but as they inevitably take numbers of lethal casualties, their tactics will quickly escalate to indiscriminate bombing and shelling of the city using their WMD armouries.
Eventually, the attackers will flatten the city and kill everyone that still resists in it. Falluja will be the Iraqi people’s Masada, and it will sow seeds of deep anti-Western hatred in the Middle East for decades to come.
The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, understands all this, in pleading for a negotiated solution. And as usual, Washington is summarily ignoring his pleas.
As a military ally with our troops in Iraq, Australia is morally implicated in this. While Australian former SAS commanders, the Governor-General, Major-General Michael Jeffery, and the Australian Christian Lobby’s executive chairman, Brigadier Jim Wallace, moralise about abortions and gay marriages, Australia’s military ally is about to destroy a living city and its families.
An unnamed US military commander in the tightening military ring around Falluja proudly boasted (as heard on ABC Radio yesterday) that this battle will go down in US military history as another Hue. Indeed it will–who can forget the wholesale artillery destruction of that sacred, historic Vietnamese city? “We had to destroy it in order to save it” was the line at the time. Now it looks like our military ally in Iraq is about to do it all over again in Falluja.
What are Australian political leaders–Government or Opposition–saying to Washington at this point? Are they saying anything at all? We reap what we sow.
TONY KEVIN, a former Australian diplomat, is a visiting fellow at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, Canberra.
This column originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.