Sunday, November 14, 2004

When the smoke has cleared around Fallujah, what horrors will be revealed?

As the Americans move street by bloody street towards control of the insurgents' stronghold, aid agencies warn of a humanitarian catastrophe. Kim Sengupta and Raymond Whitaker report

Victory was being declared yesterday in the battle of Fallujah, with 1,000 rebels reported dead, hundreds more in custody and spectacular footage from embedded television crews, showing Marines charging through deserted neighbourhoods.

"It's like those pictures from the advance into Baghdad," said one watcher as the TV showed the view over a tank gunner's shoulder, with fire pouring down an empty street. But that comment unconsciously identified the real problem: more than a year and a half after George Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq at an end, the US military, backed by British and Iraqi forces, is having to fight the war all over again.

Yesterday, as American forces embarked on what were described as "mopping-up" operations in Fallujah - though heavy shelling was still being reported - relief organisations warned that there could be a humanitarian disaster in the city. "Conditions in Fallujah are catastrophic," said Fardous al-Ubaidi of the Iraqi Red Crescent. The Iraqi Health Minister, Alaa Alwan, said ambulances had begun transferring "significant numbers" of civilian wounded to Baghdad hospitals, but did not say how many.

Washington and the Iraqi interim government could argue that civilians in Fallujah had ample warning of what was to come. More than 80 per cent of the population of 200,000 to 300,000 were said to have fled before the assault was launched on Monday. But enough reports trickled out of the besieged city to show that many inhabitants still remained, despite their invisibility in the television footage, and that their plight was severe.

Even President Bush admits that violence is likely to increase rather than decline as the election approaches. But as American forces contemplate what is left of Fallujah, some might remember the words of a US officer standing amid the ruins of Hue in Vietnam a generation ago. "In order to save the city," he declared without a hint of irony, "we had to destroy it."


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