Fallujah, the Information War, and US Propaganda

Now receded into distant memory for many, the battle for the Iraqi city of Fallujah, accompanied by the al Sadr uprising in the south, was a decisive turning point in the Iraq occupation. These battles demonstrated to much of the world that the occupation was deeply unpopular among many Iraqis, who were willing and able to fight the occupation to a stalemate. These battles both ended in standoffs, as the US forces felt constrained from unleashing their full military capabilities to crush the resistance. New insights into the thinking of the US military are available from a US army intelligence analysis – by the Army’s National Ground Intelligence Center – of the first Fallujah battle entitled Complex Environments: Battle of Fallujah I, April 2004 that was leaked this week on the Wikileaks web site.

The first battle for Fallujah (the second, in November 2004, resulted in the city’s capture by occupation forces) began when images circulated of four contractors being lynched from a bridge in the city. This new document confirms that the attack on Fallujah was designed to crush a symbol of resistance to the US occupation of Iraq:

“On 31 March 2004, four American Blackwater contractors were killed and images of their bodies being burned and mutilated were broadcast on television around the world. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, CENTCOM

Commander GEN Abizaid, and Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Ambassador Bremer decided a military response was needed immediately. Fallujah had become a symbol of resistance that dominated international headlines.”

Media War

As befits a symbolic battle, the analysis makes clear that the information war was primary. The failure of the Marines’ attack to retake Fallujah was caused, the authors claim, by resistance (“insurgents” in their lingo) forces’ success in getting their message out to the world.

“Insurgents demonstrated a keen understanding of the value of information

operations. IO was one of the insurgents’ most effective levers to raise political pressure for a cease-fire. They fed disinformation [sic] to television networks, posted propaganda on the Internet to recruit volunteers and solicit financial donations, and spread rumors through the street.”

The report echo’s the concern of American leaders about the influence of Al Jazeera and other Arab media at conveying the rebel’s side of the story:

“Arab satellite news channels were crucial to building political pressure to halt military operations. For example, CPA documented 34 stories on Al Jazeera that misreported or distorted battlefield events between 6 and 13 April. Between 14 and 20 April, Al Jazeera used the “excessive force” theme 11 times and allowed various anti-Coalition factions to claim that US forces were using cluster bombs against urban areas and kidnapping and torturing Iraqi children. Six negative reports by al-Arabiyah focused almost exclusively on the excessive force theme. Overall, the qualitative content of negative reports increasingly was shrill in tone, and both TV stations appeared willing to take even the most baseless claims as fact.

“During the first week of April, insurgents invited a reporter from Al Jazeera, Ahmed Mansour, and his film crew into Fallujah where they filmed scenes of dead babies from the hospital, presumably killed by Coalition air strikes. Comparisons were made to the Palestinian Intifada. Children were shown bespattered with blood; mothers were shown screaming and mourning.”

The report also makes clear that, in the military’s opinion, the Western press is part of the US’s propaganda operation. This process was facilitated by the embedding of Western reporters in US military units. The US failure in this battle was largely attributable, the authors claim, to the absence of embedded reporters to convey the military’s story.

“The absence of Western media in Fallujah allowed the insurgents greater control of information coming out of Fallujah. Because Western reporters were at risk of capture and beheading, they stayed out and were forced to pool video shot by Arab cameramen and played on Al Jazeera. This led to further reinforcement of anti-Coalition propaganda. For example, false allegations of up to 600 dead and 1000 wounded civilians could not be countered by Western reporters because they did not have access to the battlefield.

“Western reporters were also not embedded in Marine units fighting in Fallujah. In the absence of countervailing visual evidence presented by military authorities, Al Jazeera shaped the world’s understanding of Fallujah.”

This account, however, is false. There were at least two “Western reporters,” as well as other Western civilians, inside Fallujah giving detailed information on the effects of the fighting on civilians. While briefly detained by rebels, they were quickly released, rather than beheaded. The report ignores these reporters as they were independents, neither embedded with the US military nor bound by the implicit rules of the mainstream media to give special consideration to US military claims and perspectives. Further, the accounts of these reporters and observers contradicted American military claims.

Civilian Casualties

Dahr Jamail, at that time a reporter for the now defunct New Standard, felt obligated to go into the besieged city.

“As I was there, an endless stream of women and children who’d been sniped by the Americans were being raced into the dirty clinic, the cars speeding over the curb out front as their wailing family members carried them in.

“One woman and small child had been shot through the neck – the woman was making breathy gurgling noises as the doctors frantically worked on her amongst her muffled moaning.

“The small child, his eyes glazed and staring into space, continually vomited as the doctors raced to save his life.

After 30 minutes, it appeared as though neither of them would survive.”

Contrary to the army report’s claim that no cluster bombs were used in the attack, Jamail saw wounds suspiciously like those from that weapon:

“There had been reports of this, as two of the last victims that arrived at the clinic were reported by the locals to have been hit by cluster bombs – they were horribly burned and their bodies shredded.”

Another of these nonexistent Western reporters was Rahul Mahajan, who wrote for various alternative news sites, as well as his Empire Notes blog. He reported from Fallujah on April 11, 2003. Since Mahajan was in the same group with Jamail, it is perhaps not surprising that he also reported extensive civilian casualties:

“During the course of the roughly four hours we were at that small clinic, we saw perhaps a dozen wounded brought in. Among them was a young woman, 18 years old, shot in the head. She was having a seizure and foaming at the mouth when they brought here in; doctors did not expect her to survive the night. Another likely terminal case was a young boy with massive internal bleeding. I also saw a man with extensive burns on his upper body and wounds in his thighs that might have been from a cluster bomb; there was no way to verify in the madhouse scene of wailing relatives, shouts of ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great), and anger at the Americans.”

The intelligence report claims that “Red Crescent ambulances transported fighters” yet does not discus how this alleged situation was dealt with by the US troops. Mahajan, like other Westerners in the city, provides elucidation of this gap by reporting that the Americans were firing on ambulances, including ones containing civilians:

“I had heard these claims at third-hand before coming into Fallujah, but was skeptical. It’s very difficult to find the real story here. But this I saw for myself. An ambulance with two neat, precise bullet-holes in the windshield on the driver’s side, pointing down at an angle that indicated they would have hit the driver’s chest (the snipers were on rooftops, and are trained to aim for the chest). Another ambulance again with a single, neat bullet-hole in the windshield. There’s no way this was due to panicked spraying of fire. These were deliberate shots to kill people driving the ambulances.

“The ambulances go around with red, blue, or green lights flashing and sirens blaring; in the pitch-dark of a blacked-out city there is no way they can be missed or mistaken for something else). An ambulance that some of our compatriots were going around in, trading on their whiteness to get the snipers to let them through to pick up the wounded was also shot at while we were there.”

Jo Wilding, a British observer also among the Westerners in Fallujah, was in one of the ambulances fired upon, on a trip to pick up a pregnant woman and transport her to the hospital. She and the ambulance staff hoped that the presence of Westerners would help protect from American attack. They were wrong:

“Azzam is driving, Ahmed in the middle directing him and me by the window, the visible foreigner, the passport. Something scatters across my hand, simultaneous with the crashing of a bullet through the ambulance, some plastic part dislodged, flying through the window.

“We stop, turn off the siren, keep the blue light flashing, wait, eyes on the silhouettes of men in US marine uniforms on the corners of the buildings. Several shots come. We duck, get as low as possible and I can see tiny red lights whipping past the window, past my head. Some, it’s hard to tell, are hitting the ambulance I start singing. What else do you do when someone’s shooting at you? A tyre bursts with an enormous noise and a jerk of the vehicle.

“I’m outraged. We’re trying to get to a woman who’s giving birth without any medical attention, without electricity, in a city under siege, in a clearly marked ambulance, and you’re shooting at us. How dare you?”

Even back in Baghdad, Mahajan and Jamail were the only Western reporters who attended a press conference of the Iraqi Minister of Health, who confirmed that the Americans had fired upon ambulances in Fallujah (and also in Sadr City in Baghdad):

“During the questions, when asked about shooting at ambulances, Abbas confirmed that US forces shot at ambulances, not only in Fallujah and the approaches to Fallujah, but also in Sadr City. He agreed that the acts were criminal and said he has asked the IGC ([Interim] Governing Council) and Bremer [US governor of occupied Iraq] for an explanation.”

While in Fallujah, JO Wilding also saw civilians fired upon by US troops, illustrating the “Coalition’s concern for collateral damage” that the intelligence analysis refers to:

“There’s a man, face down, in a white dishdasha, a small round red stain on his back. We run to him. Again the flies [h]ave got there first. Dave is at his shoulders, I’m by his knees and as we reach to roll him onto the stretcher Dave’s hand goes through his chest, through the cavity left by the bullet that entered so neatly through his back and blew his heart out.

“There’s no weapon in his hand. Only when we arrive, his sons come out, crying, shouting. He was unarmed, they scream. He was unarmed. He just went out the gate and they shot him. None of them have dared come out since. No one had dared come to get his body, horrified, terrified, forced to violate the traditions of treating the body immediately. They couldn’t have known we were coming so it’s inconceivable tat anyone came out and retrieved a weapon but left the body.

“He was unarmed, 55 years old, shot in the back.”

Also relevant to the issue of “collateral damage” is the way in which the US forces divided civilians into potential “insurgents” – all males considered to be of “military age” – and all others. The others were allowed to leave the city or areas of active combat (“Throughout the fight Coalition forces allowed nonmilitary-age men, women, and children to exit through the cordon”), but males considered to be of fighting age – many tens of thousands in a city of perhaps 250,000 population – were not allowed to leave and were thus subject to being shot, as was the man described above by Wilding, upon the least suspicion. Wilding describes the implementation of this policy as a group of volunteers attempted to evacuate civilians before a planned American attack:

“‘We’re going to be going through soon clearing the houses,’ the senior one says.

"’What does that mean, clearing the houses?’

"’Going into every one searching for weapons.’ He’s checking his watch, can’t tell me what will start when, of course, but there’s going to be air strikes in support. ‘If you’re going to do t[h]is [evacuate] you gotta do it soon….’

“The people seem to pour out of the houses now in the hope we can escort them safely out of the line of fire, kids, women, men, anxiously asking us whether they can all go, or only the women and children. We go to ask. The young marine tells us that men of fighting age can’t leave. What’s fighting age, I want to know. He contemplates. Anything under forty five. No lower limit.”

Any military forcing tens of thousands of mostly noncombatant civilians to stay in a war zone under siege is obviously not putting the reduction of civilian casualties (reduction of “collateral damage”) high on its list of priorities. Not surprisingly, an analysis by Iraq Body Count concluded that almost 600 (“between 572 and 616 of the approximately 800 reported deaths”) civilians were among the dead in Fallujah.

The intelligence report also contains chilling phrases that, while subject to multiple interpretations, suggest both the difficulties of fighting a guerilla resistance in a city and the possibility of horrifying actions. Thus, in describing the structure of homes in Fallujah , the report calmly states:

“The houses also are all made of brick with a thick covering of mortar overtop. In almost every house a fragmentation grenade can be used without fragments coming through the walls. Each room can be fragged individually.”

Absences in Report

It is striking that, for all its emphasis on claims that US troops followed the “Laws of War” in the battle, avoiding, they claim, extensive “collateral damage” (i.e., civilian casualties) there is no discussion of any strategies designed to accomplish this in the “complex environment” of a city with tens to hundreds of thousands of residents in place. Of course, the accounts of Jamail, Mahajan, and Wilding suggest that the claim that collateral damage was largely avoided is exaggerated at best.

While providing useful analyses of the nature of the Fallujah fighting, and of the information war, this intelligence report demonstrates yet again the difficulties that US occupation forces, including intelligence analysts, have in coming to terms with the nature of nationalist opposition to occupation. While it contains interesting discussions of the organization of the Fallujah resistance, including their decentralized command and control structures which were hard to destroy, the authors cannot resist repeating the Marine attackers description of the resistance fighters as ” an "evil Rotary club" rather than a military organization.”

The report also illustrates American blinders in analyzing the political context of the Fallujah battle. The report does refer to the growing opposition to the assault among the Iraqi Governing Council, a group of Iraqi officials hand-picked by the United States:

“The Iraqi Governing Council began to unravel. Three members quit and 5 others threatened to quit…. The Sunni politicians considered the operation ‘collective punishment.'”

The intelligence analysis, however, doesn’t mention the extreme unpopularity, at the time of the Fallujah battle, of the occupation among many Iraqis as part of the context that hampered the US in its assault. For example, a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup poll of Iraqis taken in late March and early April 2004 found

“Only a third of the Iraqi people now believe that the American-led occupation of their country is doing more good than harm, and a solid majority support an immediate military pullout even though they fear that could put them in greater danger…

“Asked whether they view the US-led coalition as ‘liberators’ or ‘occupiers,’ 71% of all respondents say ‘occupiers.’

“That figure reaches 81% if the separatist, pro-US Kurdish minority in northern Iraq is not included….

“53% say they would feel less secure without the coalition in Iraq, but 57% say the foreign troops should leave anyway. Those answers were given before the current showdowns in Fallujah and Najaf between US troops and guerrilla fighters.”

In failing to come to terms with the unpopularity of the occupation, the report continues the American blindness to the difficulties of sustaining an occupation as opposition mounts. The report thus pays insufficient attention to the extent to which the Fallujah population supported the resistance fighters. Perhaps, however, the absence of any discussion of “winning hearts and minds” is an implicit recognition that this was an impossible goal, and one irrelevant to the US desire to crush Fallujah as a symbol of organized opposition to occupation.

In the end, the most surprising aspect of this leaked report is the absence of any information or analysis in the classified document that was not readily available in the public domain. Its failure to deal with the real situation the US faced in Iraq during the Fallujah assault raises the question as to why, even in a classified intelligence analysis, the military, and perhaps the entire US government, did not analyze reality, rather than relay propaganda. Many possible explanations can be contemplated: a fear of the document being leaked, military leaders and even intelligence analysts being infected with the same propaganda being fed to the press and the public, or systems for relaying information that reward those who support the prevailing ideology. Most likely is some combination of these factors. But the result, this report illustrates, is that, as with prewar intelligence, the intelligence during the Iraq occupation has in many cases reinforced existing beliefs rather than provide new insights designed to allow the US forces to adapt to the real conditions they faced.

Preparing for November Attack

The report provides several glimpses into the tactics used to prepare for the later November 2004 attack in which Fallujah was captured by the Americans at the cost of thousands of damaged buildings, many tens of thousands of refugees, and an unknown number of both rebel and civilian casualties. In preparing for the November attack, US forces had more time for pre-attack “shaping operations”:

“Shaping operations that clear civilians from the battlefield offers [sic] many positive second-order effects. In Fallujah in April 2004, IMEF [I Marine Expeditionary Force] only had a few days to shape the environment before engaging in decisive combat operations. The remaining noncombatants provided cover for insurgents, restrained CJTF-7’s[Coalition Joint Task Force 7] employment of combat power, and provided emotional fodder for Arab media to exploit.”

In preparing for the November attack, the US engaged in months of massive bombing and artillery strikes, perhaps in order to terrorize into leaving many of the population who were not of military age and hence allowed to leave. As the Guardian reported October 31, 2004:

“US warplanes and artillery pounded targets in the city amid prolonged clashes with insurgents. A marine at a nearby US base described the strikes as the heaviest artillery bombardment he had heard in two months. At least a dozen airstrikes hit a southeastern district of the Sunni Muslim city during the afternoon, witnesses said.”

These “shaping operations” largely worked, as Reuters reported on October 26, 2004:

“‘Three-quarters of the people have fled to other towns to avoid the American air strikes, especially the women and children,’ said Abdel Aziz Ibrahim, a teacher.

“Bank employee Mohammed al-Alwani said: ‘Whoever looks around Fallujah now can only feel sadness. The damage is so heavy the suburbs look like they were hit by an earthquake.'”

Having failed to destroy Fallujah as a symbol of resistance to occupation in April, the US designed the November attack to accomplish this goal once and for all, as the Christian Science Monitor explained on the eve of the attack:

“‘One thought going around now is: “Why doesn’t Iraq look like [post-World War II] Germany or Japan, which knew they had been defeated?"’ says John Pike, a military analyst who heads Globalsecurity.org in Alexandria, Va. ‘One of the challenges we are facing now is these people don’t know they have been defeated,’ he says. ‘Fallujah will be an opportunity for them to be crushed decisively and for them to taste defeat.'”

Or, as explained by another Western analyst in the same article:

“‘The logic is: You flatten Fallujah, hold up the head of Fallujah, and say “Do our bidding, or you’re next,”‘ says Toby Dodge, an Iraq analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.”

The US also learned from its perceived failure in the information war during the April attack, which led, in the view of the intelligence report, to calling off the attack before victory. In November they got many reporters, including even Iraqi reporters, to embed with US troops, so that they could act, in the words of the intelligence report, as the propaganda arm of US forces.

The greater success in manipulating the information war in November was offset, however, by the US’s inability to hide from reporters and thus, from the world the country’s descent into full-scale civil war. It remains to be seen if the relative lull in civil war currently occurring as the various factions reevaluate the situation will allow the US greater success in the information war, if not in the real war of occupation.