Fallujah – the hidden massacre also included accounts from two American ex-soldiers, one of whom, Jeff Englehart, spoke specifically about white phosphorus, admitting that it had been used and suggesting that it had burnt women and children in Fallujah. “The accounts that al Deraji gave me corresponded with the accounts given by Englehart, this American soldier that we interviewed. His interview was done in English [Torrealta spoke to Three Monkeys Online in Italian] and was very precise. We didn’t modify it or correct any of the interview. So the two accounts confirm each other, and we thought it correct to confront the problem of the use of white phosphorus in the battle for Fallujah. I understand that this can irritate the Pentagon but I believe at the same time that democracy is based on the balance of power – and the media is one of the pillars of this – and so it’s correct to exercise the right of journalistic enquiry into this argument”.
Two different battles
Much of the fallout from the RAI documentary has centred on the legal status of white phosphorus, and whether the American military were entitled to use it in the manner in which they did in Fallujah (for ‘shake and bake’ missions as reported in the Military’s own Field Artillery Magazine March-April 2005 edition). Perhaps to the detriment of seeing the ‘full picture’ in relation to what happened in Fallujah? “We started from these photos, as any journalist would have,” says Torrealta, “and we had these witnesses on the use of white phosphorus. I don’t know how many weapons were experimented with in Fallujha. I believe that Fallujah was an experiment camp for all sorts of weapons, because of the context in which the battle happened. Fallujah, as you know, was a city that, in an extremely violent, offensive, mode killed four contractors3. Then it was a city that strongly resisted a first assault, in April of 2004, and then, after the election of President Bush in November 2004, a final action was decided upon for Fallujah, so taking into account the resistance that the city had offered, it’s likely that particularly ‘strong’ weapons were used. We don’t know which though. The account given by Tareq al Deraji, talks about gas as well. We’ve no official briefing of this. I think it’s important to clarify [whether gas was used]. We’ve also seen, in the Los Angeles Times, this article that details the apparent suicide of a Colonel [Col. Ted Westhusing] because during the battle of Fallujah contractors had been used, meaning that not all of the battle was governed by the American army but also private companies had entered the battle, and on this element there’s very little clarity. It’s an argument that the media has just uncovered, touched upon and it would be very interesting to get to the bottom of it”.
One of the differences between the first battle for Fallujah (operation Vigilant Resolve) and the second was also the reduction of non-embedded media present. For example, when American forces dropped a 500 lb bomb on the site of a mosque in Fallujah on April 8th, 2004, it was widely reported3. Reports of civilian casualties, the use of cluster bombs, and the opening of fire on ambulances started appearing in reports, albeit outside of much of the ‘mainstream’ media, from journalists working independently from the American military (Dahr Jamail, for example). Media reporting had a critical effect on public opinion inside Iraq, to the point where the Coalition Provisional Authority head, Paul Bremner, was publicly asked for an explanation regarding the targetting and obstruction of ambulances during fighting in Fallujah4. The American administration’s anger with reporting from Al-Jazeera in particular was clear. On April 15th Donald Rumsfeld had the following exchange during a press conference:
Reporter: Can you definitively say that hundreds of women and children and innocent civilians have not been killed?
Rumsfeld: I can definitively say that what Al Jazeera is doing is vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable.
Reporter: Do you have a civilian casualty count?
Rumfsfeld: Of course not, we’re not in the city. But you know what our forces do; they don’t go around killing hundreds of civilians. That’s just outrageous nonsense. It’s disgraceful what that station is doing.5
[Editor’s note: A supressed memo leaked from the British civil service suggests that just one day later George W. Bush told Tony Blair that he wanted to bomb Al Jazeera’s Doha headquarters]
By April 23rd, the Coalition Provisional Authority, under considerable strain not only due to increasing concerns for civilian casualties in Fallujah, but also due to the revelations of torture in Abu Ghraib, announced a U-turn on its policy of de-ba’athification, allowing for former members of Saddam Hussein’s regime to take up positions of authority6, a move which paved the way for the creation of the ‘Fallujah Protection Army’ to whom the Americans handed over control of Fallujah in late April, early May. A strange compromise, handing over the city to a former General of Saddam Hussein’s army.
For many, both in the US military and outside, the first battle for Fallujah was a defeat – at the hands of the media. Retired army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters summed up the situation in Front Page magazine: “Well, the first battle of Fallujah, in the spring of 2004, was an example of how to get it as wrong as you possibly can. We bragged that we were going to ‘clean up Dodge’. And the Marines went in, tough and capable as ever. Then, just when the Marines were on the cusp of victory, they were called off, thanks to a brilliant, insidious and unscrupulous disinformation campaign waged by Al-Jazeera. I was in Iraq at the time, and the lies about American ‘atrocities’ were stunning. But the lies worked and the Bush administration, to my shock and dismay, backed down. Let’s be honest: The terrorists won First Fallujah.”7.
By the time the second battle for Fallujah occured, the media situation had radically changed. On November 9th the Guardian reported that the last remaining western newspaper journalist, Hala Jaber of the Sunday Times, had left Fallujah due to security concerns. At that point 57 journalists had been killed in the conflict (70 journalists were killed during the whole Vietnam war), both by American troops and by Insurgents. The risk of kidnapping and murder by Jihadists was emphasised in August of 2004 when Italian freelance journalist Enzo Baldoni was kidnapped and murdered by a group calling itself the ‘Islamic Army in Iraq’. At the same time Al-Jazeera suffered a series of closures and censorship at the hands of the newly instituted Iraqi interim government8. Aidan White, the general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, on November 9th said of the imminent attack on Fallujah by American forces: “This is a military offensive that is effectively closed down to the media except the people who are embedded and they are always kept on a tight leash. As far as journalism is concerned the shutters have come down”9.
The effect was that eyewitness accounts, for the main part, failed to make their way into the mainstream media. The battle for Fallujah was portrayed as one between the American military and die-hard insurgents. Civilians were rarely if ever, mentioned. Of an estimated population of 300,000, in early November, two thirds were thought to have fled the city. Observers suggested that the remaining population was between 60-100,000 people, yet by the American military’s estimates the insurgents numbers were between 1,500 and 3,00010. American forces said they would arrest any man under 45 trying to leave the city11.
By November 16th, the Inter Press Service news agency reported claims by a high ranking official with the Red Cross in Baghdad that “at least 800 civilians” had been killed in Fallujah during the ongoing military offensive. The actual numbers of civilian casualties, like those in Iraq in general, are still unknown.
Operation Phantom Fury/al-Fajr, as the attack on Fallujah was labelled, involved between 10,000 and 14,000 American troops, with the support of heavy aerial bombardment. Placing the firepower in context, Italian magazine Espresso wrote of just one battery, that of Captain James T. Cobb, from which “almost 2 thousand heavy calibre projectiles were launched on a piece of the city the size of Piazza San Pietro [the Vatican’s main square]”.
One Year Later
RAI News 24’s broadcast Fallujah – the hidden massacre was perhaps the first mainstream broadcast to address the issue of both white phosphorus use and civilian casualties in Fallujah, one year after the actual military operation. And at the same time the programme has yet to be shown on RAI’s non satellite channels (there is currently a petition being collected to demand the programme be broadcast).
The resistance of media organisations, including the BBC (who eventually in the wake of the RAI documentary, managed to force an admission from the American military that they had indeed used white phosphorus as an offensive weapon despite their earlier denials), is profoundly disturbing. The situation on the ground in Iraq makes it difficult for independent news to be verified, and so the ‘official’ version more readily finds its way on to the airwaves. Italian film-maker and journalist Gabriele Zamparini gives a revealing account of how the white phosphorus story developed within the BBC in his article The mysterious case of white phosphorous. Or: how the BBC learned to stop worrying and love the bomb . The catch 22 being that, as BBC editor Helen Beaden wrote to Zamparini, “we did not see banned weapons being used, deployed, or even discussed. We cannot therefore report their use”. [Editor’s note: Zamparini, author of American Voices of Dissent also uncovered a US department of defence document that clearly refers to white phosphorus as a chemical weapon – when used by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds]
The success that Torrealta and Ranucci’s film has had in pushing the white phosphorus story firmly into the centre stage is all the more remarkable because of the prevailing attitude in news organisations towards reporting in Iraq. “I was very happily impressed by the correction issued by the Pentagon,” Torrealta says, referring to an admission by the Pentagon that previous denials surrounding the use of white phosphorus as a weapon were incorrect. “I think that an institution that knows how to correct its own errors, that admits to having been mistaken in information given to the press, is an institution that’s an example of the strength of democracy. In the same way I was struck by the editorial in the New York Times where it invited the American army to no longer use white phosphorus because it’s a weapon, apart from the technicalities, that should be banned”. Given the initial hostile and aggressive response to the documentary, Torrealta is remarkably positive about the way the story has developed: “All this is the demonstration of the great attention payed above all by the United States to human rights, and I think that’s the strength of the West, the attention that the West always has with regard to human rights, and the capacity to correct from this point of view any mistakes made. I think it’s the test of how great western democracy is”.
Given that the corrections regarding the use of white phosphorus on the part of the State department were forced by the discovery of incriminating documents by bloggers like Zamparini; that the documentary made by RAI News 24 has yet to be shown on its own terrestrial network; given that Donald Rumsfeld on the 29th November, almost simultaneously with this interview,stood by white phosphorus as a legitimate military weapon12; and, above all, given that we still have no offical record of how many civilians have been killed by coalition troops, perhaps it’s premature to talk about the strengths of western democracy.
3 Battles Rage from North to South – the Guardian April 8 2004 Between 25-40 Iraqis were killed in the blast. Reports from various journalists indicated that Mosques had been used by insurrgents both for snipers and storing of weaponry
4“Iraqi Health Minister Presses Authorities to explain U.S. Targeting of Falluja Ambulances” Dahr Jamail, April 18, 2004
6US Forces to pull out of Fallujah the Guardian April 29, 2004
7New Glory Front Page Magazine, September 2005.
9Western journalists quit Fallujah the Guardian, November 9, 2004
10Men Vs Civilians Counterpunch, November 8 2004
11 Reuters dispatch, November 5th 2004