Between Fallujah and Palestine

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
21 April 2004

The insurgency in Iraq is on the verge of becoming an uprising (see Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karl Vick, “Uprisings Force U.S. to Rethink Strategy in Iraq”, Washington Post, 18 April 2004). The assault on the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad on 20 April and the huge car bombs in Basra a day later, which together killed over eighty people, are evidence that the violence is occurring far beyond the recent epicentre of conflict, the city of Fallujah west of Baghdad.

This spreading campaign is having disastrous effects on United States efforts to engineer the reconstruction efforts. Almost all major work programmes are at a standstill. April 2004 has already been by far the worst month for US casualties, even including the initial three-week war of March-April 2003, and the highly fortified “green zone” in the centre of Baghdad is now home to thousands of private contractors and their employees who cannot undertake even routine operations because of the lack of security.

How the United States reacts to this new situation will largely determine the further development of the insurgency. The experience at Fallujah suggests that it will play to its strength, that of overwhelming military firepower, even if such a policy ends up being deeply counterproductive.

An assault in Fallujah

The controversy over the violent confrontation in Fallujah has resulted in sharply contrasting accounts of the fighting and its effects. On one side, numerous reports from medical staff and aid agencies attest to many hundreds of deaths and well over 1,000 injuries. Aid workers present in the city for some of the time, such as Jo Wilding, confirm evidence of intense levels of violence in the city.

Also on openDemocracy: Jo Wilding’s vivid reports from inside Fallujah

On the other side, senior US military spokespersons say that the marines used limited force that precisely targeted militants and largely avoided civilians. According to US General Richard B. Myers, for example: “There has never been a more humane campaign… and that goes for operations in Fallujah” (BBC News, 15 April 2004).

Furthermore, military sources have still tried to maintain that the insurgents in Fallujah were relatively small in number and that it would have been possible to gain control of the city if the attackers so determined. The latter argument is called into question by the decision to go for short-term ceasefires with parallel negotiations, the very fact of negotiation suggesting that US control was not feasible without massive costs.

In this context, moreover, two things have now become clear. One is that the level of opposition to US forces was much higher than expected and the second is that there were clear-cut examples of the use of massive firepower by US forces. This is illustrated by a remarkable sequence of events that took place at the height of the conflict last week, on Tuesday 13 April. Although it was just one incident in a long conflict, its significance may turn out to be considerable, not least because details of it are drawn almost entirely from US sources (Pamela Constable, “A Wrong Turn, Chaos and a Rescue”, Washington Post, 15 April 2004).

At around 4.30pm on the Tuesday afternoon, a supply convoy of Humvees was moving towards a marines post on the edge of a US-controlled area when it came under light-arms attack. The convoy turned back and the supplies were shifted to two armoured vehicles that moved forward again. These vehicles were in turn attacked by insurgents using rocket-propelled grenades. One turned back but the engine of the other vehicle caught fire and, in the confusion, the driver took a wrong turn.

It then came under heavy attack and a large rescue column including four tanks was sent to its aid. There then followed a three-hour gun battle between insurgents and marines, with US air force planes brought in for ground attack.

As dusk fell, the marines fought through several city blocks to reach the point where the seventeen marines in the armoured personnel carrier had taken refuge in a nearby building, their carrier now being burnt out. Eventually, after sustained combat, the marines were extricated, apparently without any deaths but with several wounded. At least twenty insurgents were reported killed.

The rescue operation was hailed as a success. One local commander said: “This is a story about heroes. It shows the tenacity of the Marines and their fierce loyalty to each other. They were absolutely unwilling to leave their brother Marines behind.”

One immediate implication of this incident was that the level of resistance was very much greater than the marines had expected. In this light, the evident risk of heavy casualties should any attempt be made to take control of the city may help to explain the calling of a truce.

In any case, though, what happened next was much more significant. To quote the Washington Post:

“Just before dawn Wednesday… AC-130 Spectre gunships launched a devastating punitive raid over a six-block area around the spot where the convoy was attacked, firing dozens of artillery shells that shook the city and lit up the sky. Marine officials said the area was virtually destroyed and that no further insurgent activity has been seen there.”

The AC-130 Spectre is a development of the Lockheed C-130 military transport in which powerful guns, including a 105mm howitzer, are mounted in the body of the aircraft, pointing out sideways and downwards. In undertaking a ground attack, the aircraft circles the target using a guidance system to ensure that the gunfire is targeted towards specific points on the ground.

Each plane’s howitzer can be armed with up to 200 high explosive shells, with the ammunition being used in a matter of minutes. Shells can be targeted to explode over a substantial area, and the action in Fallujah, targeting several city blocks, was equivalent to destroying a small town, even though this was a punitive raid carried out several hours after an attack by insurgents that involved minimal US casualties.

The Israeli factor

The use of such force in Fallujah is reminiscent of Israeli Defence Force (IDF) tactics in the occupied territories, where substantial airborne firepower has been used repeatedly in urban conflict. An earlier column in this series (“Perception and reality in the ‘war on terror’”, 11 December 2003) commented on more direct connections between the IDF and the US military. In late 2003, IDF specialists arrived at the home base of US special forces at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where they were reported to be assisting in the training of US units in counter-insurgency tactics, including the assassination of guerrilla leaders.

Soon after, in early December, a series of meetings was held in Israel, hosted by senior IDF personnel and involving a US team headed by the commander of the US army’s training and doctrine command, General Kevin Byrnes (see the column “After Saddam, no respite”, 19 December 2003 – quoting Defense News of 15 December). Reports of that meeting indicate the close relationship between US and Israeli military, with the former keen to learn from the experience of the IDF in the Palestinian territories.

More evidence of that connection is now available, not least in terms of weapons and equipment developed in Israel for the control of the West Bank and Gaza and now being used by US forces in Iraq. On 22-25 March, Israel’s ground forces command staged an event in which soldiers and arms technologists spoke openly about systems they had developed to defeat Palestinian militias (Barbara Opall-Rome, “Israeli Arms, Gear Aid U.S. Troops”, Defense News, 30 March 2004).

Among those present at the event were staff from US special operations command, the US marine corps’ warfighting laboratory, US space and naval warfare systems command and the US army’s national ground intelligence center.

US officials were reluctant to discuss the extent of the collaboration but did indicate that the amount of joint US-Israeli military training had accelerated in the past two or three years. One US defence official said that military-to-military “cooperation with the Israelis has been going on for decades across all service branches, but its true that only recently, you’ve started to see a lot more Israeli systems deployed in different theatres.”

What is clear is that a range of systems developed by the Israeli armaments industry are being purchased for use by the US armed forces, especially for use in Iraq. US forces already use the Israeli aircraft industries Hunter robotic reconnaissance aircraft; fourteen more have just been ordered. They also use the Rafael armament development authority Simon grenade launcher, with a wall-breaching variant now being evaluated by the US marine corps. Rafael is also developing a robotic anti-sniper system, once again of interest to the marines.

Another Israeli company, Tadiran Communications, is providing a pocket-sized combined navigation, satellite radio and digital messaging system, and the Pentagon’s combating terrorism technology support office (CTTSO) has ordered a number of prototypes of a new Israeli multi-function sensor produced by ODF Optronics of Tel Aviv. This system, termed “Eyeball”, is the size of a tennis ball but contains movement sensors, microphones, speakers and transmitters, enabling it to hear and even communicate with insurgents. As a major from the marine corps’ warfighting laboratory remarked: “The Israelis are way ahead of the others in some very interesting, niche fields.”

Through Arab eyes

From the perspective of a US military commander, anything that improves the US warfighting ability is warranted, but this increasingly close cooperation with Israel has substantial political implications across the Arab world. Whether intentional or not, the signal it sends is that something akin to a combined operation is underway, a reading supported by President Bush’s unequivocal support for Ariel Sharon’s current unilateral actions.

From a regional perspective, the Israelis are controlling legitimate Palestinian opposition using hard military force, including the employment of a range of new technologies. Now, those same technologies used against the Palestinians are being handed over to the United States for use against the opposition in Iraq, where American forces are already using their preponderance of firepower to try to control an otherwise dangerous insurgency.

This is powerfully demonstrated to Arab audiences by the events in Fallujah, with the 13-14 April ambush and subsequent massive retaliation being just one example. Fallujah is now gaining an almost mythical status with potential long-term consequences that may reach well beyond Iraq. (Karl Vick and Anthony Shadid, “Fallujah Gains Mythic Air”, Washington Post, 13 April 2004).

Similarly, the Israelis kill Hamas leaders – first Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and now Abdel Aziz Rantisi – while the US occupying forces in Iraq talk openly of killing Muqtada al-Sadr. Among the consequences of these and other actions will be an even stronger perception of an Israeli-American war against Islam. It is difficult to imagine a better recruiting sergeant for al-Qaida and its associates.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData