The fierce combat in Fallujah, the most recent episode of which began on Nov. 7 when U.S. and Iraqi military forces launched an invasion against insurgents in the Sunni Muslim city, has inflicted devastation upon the local civilian population.Many civilians have fled Fallujah to seek refuge in nearby camps, abandoned buildings, and with acquaintances elsewhere in Iraq. However, thousands more have remained, often hiding in their homes and with many enduring casualties, shortage of food and clean water, and woefully insufficient medical services.
On Nov. 12, the human rights organization, Amnesty International, announced that dozens of civilians may have been killed in Fallujah, as a result of the failure by both sides to take adequate steps to keep those not participating in the fighting out of harm’s way. These reports, if substantiated, would represent contraventions of international humanitarian law, the body of law dedicated to reducing the suffering produced by war, and in particular, protecting noncombatants during armed conflict. Four days later, UN human rights chief Louise Arbour called for investigation into reported violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law in Fallujah. Arbour cited allegations that civilians have been targeted, and condemned any “indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks” by the parties to the conflict.
As U.S. and Iraqi soldiers continue to battle opposition forces, all parties to the conflict are required as much as possible to protect civilians from being caught in the crossfire. The reports that have emerged from Fallujah – indicating large numbers of civilians killed, injured, and confined to life-threatening conditions – suggest that humanitarian norms regarding the prohibition of military attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks have been breached.
In the aftermath of the Fallujah battle, it will be necessary to assess whether a good faith effort was made by the warring parties, including the U.S. military, to protect Fallujah’s civilian population from the violence. As far as U.S. military conduct is concerned, this question may be impossible to answer at the present time; furthermore, the behavior of the military in Iraq varies from case to case. However, definitively responding to this question is critical to maintaining American military standards and assuring its respect for noncombatants. In addition, the United States and its allies in Iraq must face the reality that any failures to ensure the safety and well-being of civilians could threaten efforts to win the “hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people. If this is a battle being waged for the sake of the Iraqi people, then the negative effects of the fighting on Fallujah’s civilians must be closely monitored.
Worrisome Estimates of Civilian Casualties
One striking feature of the military operation in Fallujah is the paucity of reliable information relating to the full impact of the violence on civilians. In this respect, the Fallujah battle represents a microcosm of the wider conflict in Iraq. With deadly altercations persisting between U.S. and Iraqi troops and insurgents in the city, it is far too soon to be able to accurately gauge the entire civilian toll of the Fallujah assault.
Under the fourth Geneva Convention, Iraqi civilians must “at all times be humanely treated, and shall be protected especially against all acts of violence …” Customary international law also offers protections to civilians in armed conflict. As far as the U.S. military is concerned, the Constitution mandates respect for international treaty obligations under U.S. law. U.S. military policies implement both treaties and customary rules among U.S. forces through such documents as the Army Field Manual and Defense Department Directive 5100.77, which demands that the military branches “comply with the law of war during all armed conflicts, however such conflicts are characterized, and with the principles and spirit of the law of war during all other operations.”
In terms of the Fallujah battle, U.S. and Iraqi officials have downplayed the incidence of adverse effects upon civilians. The U.S. military states that it does not count civilian casualties. However, news reports, residents and aid agencies have testified to the dire humanitarian situation amid the Fallujah hostilities. Sadly, this is not the first time that the civilians of Fallujah – until recently an insurgent stronghold – have endured the tribulations of deadly conflict. Just months ago, in April 2004, American military forces conducted large-scale aerial bombardments, utilizing 2,000-pound bombs during a month-long siege of Fallujah. The April assault was aimed at insurgents held responsible for the beheadings of four private American security workers and the killing of five American soldiers by an improvised explosive device (IED) in Fallujah. U.S. forces then handed over control to Iraqi forces due to concerns about heavy civilian casualties. At the time, UN human rights investigator Paul Hunt called for an independent inquiry into the effects of the siege on civilians, alluding to credible claims of human rights breaches and disproportionate numbers of noncombatant deaths. According to unconfirmed reports by hospital and media sources, at least 600 persons died in the April fighting. Over half of these people were reported to be civilians, including children. These accounts indicate the need to obtain more precise evidence of the actual civilian toll of the fighting, rather than simply denouncing casualty estimates due to claims that they lack credibility.
During the April hostilities, U.S. military commanders stated that they were doing their best to avoid civilian casualties. They accused militants of using civilians as human shields and firing at U.S. forces from hospitals, schools and mosques. Following the April siege, civilians faced the extremist rule of clerics and mujaheddin fighters who reigned in Fallujah after the U.S. pullout. Between July and October, numerous air strikes on Fallujah may have killed dozens, including women and children. Because insurgents are frequently located in close proximity to noncombatants, civilian casualties have arisen from U.S. strikes aimed at insurgents.
The U.S. military estimates that 200,000 persons fled Fallujah prior to the early November assault, leaving about 30,000-50,000 residents behind. Those unfortunate civilians who were unable to flee the conflict have inevitably been trapped amid the bombings, artillery, and small arms and light weapons fire between insurgents and U.S. and allied forces. U.S. and Iraqi authorities instructed Fallujans to evacuate the city to minimize civilian casualties during the recent invasion, but the destructive nature of urban combat, combined with the use of powerful weaponry in civilian-inhabited areas, has inexorably resulted in casualties among the civilians who could not leave the city.
In the days leading up to the November invasion, Fallujah was subjected to a U.S. military cordon and intense bombardment on a daily basis. U.S. warplanes, such as AC-130 gunships, struck insurgent positions, in tandem with tank cannons, mortar and artillery, including M109A6 Paladin 155mm howitzers that can be fired from a range of 22 miles and will kill anyone within 55 yards of the point of impact. A number of 500-pound bombs were dropped on the city, obliterating insurgent targets and any other persons or buildings in the impact area. Bombings were said to cause damage to poorly constructed houses, where such structures were located near buildings that were attacked. U.S. forces in Fallujah have used the Miclic rocket-propelled mine clearing system, normally deemed unfit for use in an urban environment because of its indiscriminate explosive force. The use of such extraordinary military hardware in an urban setting necessarily invokes questions – about the extent to which these armaments have affected local civilians – which need to be conclusively answered.
Reports of civilian objects being attacked have also brought to light the possibility of questionable bombing tactics which may have caused civilian deaths yet unconfirmed by authorities. As fighting raged during the present assault on Fallujah, residents and medical staff gave disturbing accounts of U.S. warplanes attacking the Central Health Center on Nov. 9. The health facility, a protected institution under the fourth Geneva Convention, was apparently acting as an emergency hospital to care for approximately 60 patients, many of whom had serious injuries from U.S. aerial bombings and attacks. Dr. Sami al-Jumaili reported that 35 patients were killed, including two girls and three boys under the age of 10, when three U.S. bombs were dropped on the clinic. Twenty-four medical staff were also reported to have died in the bombings, which were also described by Fadhil Badrani, an Iraqi reporter for Reuters and the BBC. Badrani placed the bombings’ death toll at 40 patients and 15 health workers. The entire health center reportedly collapsed on the people inside. The U.S. military has dismissed accounts of this bombing as unsubstantiated. However, the above reports echo stories of other bombings in Fallujah, from news sources such as the BBC, which describe similar attacks that have destroyed additional medical facilities and numerous homes.
Several reports, emanating from a wide array of media, have illuminated apparent failures by both sides to protect civilians in the Fallujah fighting; hence, more thorough explanations are needed from the authorities about the extent of, and reasons for, civilian injuries caused by the hostilities. According to the London Observer, “The horrific conditions for those who remained in (Fallujah) have begun to emerge ... as it became clear that U.S. military claims of ‘precision’ targeting of insurgent positions were false.” Such claims should elicit further investigation. Similarly, an Iraqi journalist reported that civilian casualties have been caused by huge demonstrations of force directed towards city neighborhoods during the Fallujah battle. A BBC correspondent remarked that massive amounts of firepower have been applied by U.S. troops: “I imagine there must be many casualties considering the amount of gunfire I’ve seen. The Americans launch about 500 rounds to the insurgents’ one, pelleting the insurgent area.” Furthermore, Amnesty International alleged that insurgents have deployed their weapons indiscriminately; insurgents have carried out suicide bombings and have taken hostages.
It is believed that scores of injured civilians remain in their homes in Fallujah, unable to obtain medical care due to poor security conditions and the U.S. military’s refusal to allow sufficient medical personnel into the city. As the violence in Fallujah waned in mid-November, some civilians – many starving, wounded and fear-stricken – ventured outside, braving ongoing fighting and U.S. and insurgent sniper fire, in search of nourishment and emergency medical care. Iraqi Health Minister Alaa Alwan stated that a “significant number” of wounded civilians were evacuated from Fallujah. On Nov. 16, a Red Cross official in Baghdad was reported to have stated that “at least 800 civilians” have already died in the recent Fallujah hostilities, although this number is unconfirmed.
A ‘Humanitarian Disaster’
In contrast to official U.S. and Iraqi comments, the situation in Fallujah has variously been declared a “humanitarian disaster” and “catastrophic” by independent relief agencies such as the Iraqi Red Crescent Society. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) expressed concern over the humanitarian situation in Fallujah. Eyewitness accounts and statements by international organizations reveal that the parties to the conflict may not have ensured humanitarian protection for civilians in Fallujah.
While the city continues to be under strict military occupation, health workers have spoken of large numbers of civilians lying starving or injured in homes. U.S. authorities have prevented medical personnel, ambulances, equipment and supplies from entering the city to tend to the sick and wounded, purportedly because of the lack of security. Diarrhea and other diseases represent major health threats, due to the lack of clean water, decaying corpses lining the streets and disrupted sanitation systems. U.S. forces cut off the city’s water supply before their assault on Fallujah. Shattered water and sewage pipes have produced pools of sewage-filled water. On Nov. 15, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies declared: “There is an urgent need to respond to the needs of the displaced families and to gain access to any civilians still inside Falluja. There is currently no water, power or food stocks, no access to medical assistance, or possibility (at this stage) of evacuating the wounded.”
Approximately 60 percent of Iraqis depend upon government food rations, but many Fallujans last received food allocations on Oct. 23. The distribution of food and clean water is only available in limited fashion, administered by U.S. and Iraqi forces at central locations. A 24-hour curfew was imposed by Iraqi authorities on Nov. 15. Electrical service has been inoperative for days, while power lines dangle on the ground. The city’s buildings, and much of its infrastructure, have largely been demolished. According to Iraqi Minister of Industry Hajim al-Hasani, “(s)o much has been destroyed, more than ever expected.”
<>One U.S. Marine commander intimated that anyone still in the city would be treated as a potential insurgent. While this approach may be prudent from a military standpoint, this perspective also calls into question the commander’s degree of concern for civilian well-being. Residents attempting to flee the city have witnessed their family members shot and killed while trying to escape the violence. One resident, Faris Aid Al-Mashhadani – forced to cower in his house with his wife and children to avoid the bloodshed – stated that U.S. troops fired on his house before entering it.
Al-Mashhadani was told to wait for assistance, but after two weeks he remained inside without food, drinking untreated water.>
Under the fourth Geneva Convention and U.S. military guidelines, hospitals, medical workers and transports are to be protected from the hostilities. Yet, Fallujah’s main hospital, Fallujah General Hospital, was seized by U.S. forces early in the recent assault, an action justified by the alleged presence of insurgents in the hospital. However, the fact that the hospital was seized without a single shot being fired lends credence to other reasons for its seizure. Notably, the hospital was viewed by the military as a center of propaganda because local medical personnel had disseminated inflated numbers of civilian casualties after previous aerial bombardments. American forces also reportedly fired upon an Iraqi ambulance; the driver and five patients were alleged to have died in the shooting, with one paramedic being wounded.
<>International humanitarian law and U.S. military doctrine, including the Army Field Manual, confer to an occupying power the responsibility to ensure provision of food, medical supplies and services to the civilian population. It is also required that independent relief agencies be permitted to conduct their assistance activities in cases of inadequate supply. While the status of the U.S. military as an occupying power may be debated, it is the only entity with sufficient control over the humanitarian situation in Fallujah to be able to ensure the flow of medical and relief assistance to those in need. For this reason, it is essential that the United States respect the spirit of these provisions to the fullest extent possible. Relief agencies were allowed into the city on Nov. 13, while their access to those in need remains restricted by U.S. forces. Reports indicate that the current state of humanitarian assistance in Fallujah is wholly inadequate.
Meanwhile, one doctor from Fallujah’s main hospital told Reuters, “(t)here is not a single surgeon in Fallujah.” Though this assertion may not have been confirmed, the statements of other observers and relief agencies reflect the critical and immediate need for medical and humanitarian assistance to reach those in need in Fallujah.
U.S. and Iraqi military forces are the main providers of humanitarian assistance to Fallujah’s civilians. But residents claim that they are too afraid of the insurgents as well as the U.S. military to approach centralized aid centers run by allied troops. In the meantime, insurgents and U.S. and allied forces have failed to respect the independence of humanitarian aid agencies like the France-based Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), which left Iraq in November due to concerns for the safety of its staff.
Civilians have suffered great physical losses in the recent Fallujah hostilities. The psychological effects upon civilians, of seeing neighbors and relatives die from untreated wounds and malnutrition, and from witnessing the destruction of myriad homes, mosques and other buildings in the city, should also not be underestimated. These effects may become even more pronounced when the 200,000 people who fled Fallujah return to a city in ruins. The civilian toll of the Fallujah battle will not be fully comprehended for some time. However, in a battle admittedly being waged for the Iraqi people themselves, every effort must be taken to discover the totality of civilian suffering, use all possible means to prevent it, and remedy its occurrence.
The author, Andrew Prosser, is a Herbert Scoville, Jr., Peace Fellow at the Center for Defense Information.
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Author: Andrew Prosser
Center for Defense Information