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Fallujah: The homecoming and the homeless

By Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad and Kim Sengupta

11 December 2004

The Black Watch arrives back in Britain this morning ­ home in time for Christmas as Tony Blair had promised.

The regiment's five-week mission ­ the toughest British troops have faced since the invasion of Iraq 21 months ago ­ made possible the US assault on Fallujah, which now lies in ruins. Five Black Watch soldiers died, and no one doubts the dedication they brought to the task, particularly as the regiment knew it was facing the axe in a forthcoming review of the Army.

As they left Camp Dogwood for the last time yesterday, one officer spoke of the frustration among the 850-strong contingent when it was ordered north to support the American forces. He said: "The whole deployment was, of course, heavily politicised from the beginning. Some soldiers criticised Tony Blair by name. There was a feeling that we were being used, and that made it difficult to focus initially on our mission."

They are delighted to be back home, and will no doubt enjoy emotional reunions with their families. But what of the mission they left behind, and the city that was its target? Yesterday, the first independent reports began to emerge from a flattened city which is facing an unprecedented, permanent security crackdown, and an uncertain future.

The assault by 10,000 US troops began on 8 November, just after the US presidential elections: its aim, to clear a city regarded by the Americans as a hotbed of insurgency.

More than 70 marines died, and 1,600 rebels. But no one knows the civilian casualty toll ­ this in a city which once numbered 300,000. Indeed, there are no estimates of how many people are still there, or how many escaped to neighbouring towns and to Baghdad before the assault got under way.

Ahmed Rawi, a Red Cross spokesman, said yesterday: "No one knows how many families are inside the city." The Red Cross team ­ which entered without escort and left before curfew ­ met no residents, apart from engineers and technicians. The Red Cross reported that hundreds of dead bodies remain stacked inside a potato chip warehouse on the outskirts. Some of the bodies were too badly decomposed to be identified. Raw sewage runs through the streets.

All this, and there are no humanitarian workers working inside the city. When the first of Fallujah's refugees are allowed to return on Christmas Eve, they will be funnelled through five checkpoints. Each will have their fingerprints taken, along with DNA samples and retina scans. Residents will be issued with badges with their home addresses on them, and it will be an offence not to wear it at all times. No civilian vehicles will be allowed in the city in an effort to thwart suicide bombers. One idea floated by the US is for all males in Fallujah be compelled to join work battalions in which they will be paid to clear rubble and rebuild houses.

American officers say the hardline approach is legal under martial law regulations issued last month by the interim government of Iyad Allawi. But they appear a little embarrassed by the Orwellian overtones of their plan. Major Francis Piccoli, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, admitted: "Some may see this as a 'Big Brother is watching over you' experiment. But, in reality, it's a simple security measure to keep the insurgents from coming back."

Before the battle of Fallujah, the US repeatedly said that foreign fighters and Islamic zealots were orchestrating guerrilla attacks on US soldiers from the city. But the planned measures presume everybody in Fallujah to be a potential supporter of the resistance.

Fallujah will be the first community in Iraq to be subjected to such tough identification tests. So far, they have been used mainly against detainees ­ there are 2,000 people still held on suspicion of aiding the insurgents.

The city's capture was supposed to break the back of the insurgency and open the way for people to take part in the Iraqi elections on 30 January. Yet, so far, there is little sign that resistance to the US and the interim government is weakening in Sunni Muslim districts in central and northern Iraq.

The plan to identify and monitor all civilians is very similar to a plan implemented by Saddam Hussein to separate insurgents from civilians in Iraqi Kurdistan during the 1980s.

Against all this background, the officer from the Black Watch said as he prepared to leave: "Was it worth it? Of course, we have all got our private thoughts about this war. There was a lot of unease about being identified too much with the Americans and Fallujah ... you have to hope at the end that we did some good. Only time will tell."