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After six days of intense combat against the Fallujah insurgents, US warplanes, tanks and mortars have left a shattered landscape of gutted buildings, crushed cars and charred bodies.
A drive through the city revealed a picture of utter destruction, with concrete houses flattened, mosques in ruins, telegraph poles down, power and phone lines hanging slack and rubble and human remains littering the empty streets. The north-west Jolan district, once an insurgent stronghold, looked like a ghost town, the only sound the rumbling of tank tracks.
US Marines pointed their assault rifles down abandoned streets, past Fallujah’s simple amusement park, now deserted. Four bloated and burnt bodies lay on the main street, not far from US tanks and soldiers. The stench of the remains hung heavy in the air, mixing with the dust.
Another body lay stretched out on the next block, its head blown off, perhaps in one of the countless explosions which rent the city day and night for nearly a week. Some bodies were so mutilated it was impossible to tell if they were civilians or militants, male or female.
Fallujah, regarded as a place with an independent streak where citizens even defied the former leader Saddam Hussein at times, seemed lifeless. The minarets of the city’s dozens of mosques stood silent, no longer broadcasting the call to holy war that so often echoed across the rooftops, inspiring fighters to join the insurgency.
Restaurant signs were covered in soot. Pavements were crushed by 70-ton Abrams tanks, and rows of crumbling buildings stood on both sides of deserted streets. Upmarket homes with garages looked as if they had been abandoned for years. Cars lay crushed in the middle of streets. Two Iraqis in one street desperately trying to salvage some of their smashed belongings were the only signs of life.
As US soldiers walked through neighbourhoods, their allies in the Iraqi forces casually moved along dusty streets past wires hanging down from gutted buildings. They carried boxes of bottled water to the rooftops of the upmarket villas they now occupy. The soldiers sat on the roofs staring at the ruins.
As a small convoy of Humvees moved back to position on the edge of the Jolan district, a rocket landed in the sand about 100ft away, a reminder that militants were still out there somewhere, even if the city that harboured them has fallen. The few civilians left in Fallujah talked of a city left in ruins not just by the six days of the ground assault, but the weeks of bombing that preceded the attack.
Residents have long been without electricity or water, abandoning their homes and congregating in the centre of the city as the US forces advanced from all sides. They had cowered in buildings as the battle unfolded past the windows.
The reaction of US troops to attacks, say residents, have been out of all proportion; shots by snipers have been answered by rounds from Abrams tanks, devastating buildings and, it is claimed, injuring and killing civilians. This is firmly denied by the American military.
About 200,000 refugees fled the fighting, and there have been outbreaks of typhoid and other diseases.
People leaving the city described rotting corpses being piled up and thousands still trapped inside their homes, many of them wounded and without access to food, water or medical aid. US commanders insist civilian casualties in Fallujah have been low, but the Pentagon famously claims it does not keep figures.
Escaping residents described incidents in which non-combatants, including women and children, were killed by shrapnel or hit by bombs. In one case last week, a nine-year-old boy was hit in the stomach by shrapnel. Unable to reach a hospital, he died hours later from blood loss. His father had to bury his body in their garden.
Those trapped inside the city say they are reaching a point of desperation. “Our situation is very hard,” said Abu Mustafa, contacted by telephone in the central Hay al-Dubat neighbourhood. “We don’t have food or water,” he told Reuters. “My seven children all have severe diarrhoea. One of my sons was wounded by shrapnel last night and he’s bleeding, but I can’t do anything to help him.”
Aamir Haidar Yusouf, a 39-year-old trader, sent his family out of Fallujah, but stayed behind to look after his home, not just during the fighting, but the looting which will follow. “The Americans have been firing at buildings if they see even small movements,” he said.
As the fighting died down yesterday he said: “They are also destroying cars, because they think every car has a bomb in it. People have moved from the edges of the city into the centre, and they are staying on the ground floors of buildings. There will be nothing left of Fallujah by the time they finish. They have already destroyed so many homes with their bombings from the air, and now we are having this from tanks and big guns.”
There was no sign of the guerrillas who scribbled graffiti along the walls of the park, encouraging Fallujah’s 300,000 residents to join a holy war against US-led troops. “Long live the mujahedin,” read the graffiti.
Mohammed Younis, a former policeman, said: “The Americans and [Iyad] Allawi [Iraq’s interim Prime Minister] have been saying that Fallujah is full of foreign fighters. That is not true; they left a long time ago. You will find them in other places, in Baghdad. We have been saying to Allawi and the Americans that they are not here, but they do not believe us.”