Falluja, Iraq, a low-rise, mostly Sunni city of about 200,000, has become this war’s Sarajevo. I was there on Saturday and Sunday during what was supposed to be a cease-fire. Instead of calm, I found a city under siege from American artillery and snipers.
At one of the city’s clinics I saw dozens of freshly wounded women and children, victims of US Marine Corps munitions. Hospital officials report that more than 600 Iraqis have now been killed, most of them civilians. Two soccer fields in Falluja have been converted to graveyards. I went to Falluja with a small group of international journalists and NGO workers. We traveled in a large bus full of medical supplies; our plan was to unload our cargo, take a look around, then leave with as many wounded as we could take out with us.
When we left Baghdad, the road was desolate and littered with the scorched and smoldering shells of vehicles. At the first US checkpoint, the soldiers said they’d been there for thirty hours straight. They looked exhausted and scared. After being searched, we continued along bumpy dirt roads, winding our way through parts of Abu Ghraib, steadily but slowly making our way toward besieged Falluja. At one point we passed a supply truck that had been hit and was being looted by people from a nearby village. Men and boys were running from the wreck carrying boxes. A small child yelled at our bus, “We will be mujahedeen until we die!”
At one overpass we rolled by an M-1 tank that resistance fighters had destroyed. Smoke and flames still billowed from its burning guts. Down the road were more fires–the whole thirty kilometers to Falluja was strewn with burned-out fuel tankers, trucks, armored personnel carriers (APCs) and tanks. As we approached Falluja we started running into mujahedeen checkpoints. Seeing our supplies and hearing that we were headed for Falluja, the guerrillas let us pass.
Entering the city we saw a huge cloud from a US bomb. To our horror we realized there was no cease-fire. Falluja itself was virtually empty, aside from groups of mujahedeen fighters positioned on every other street corner, their faces covered by kaffiyehs. Many were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles; some had rocket propelled grenade launchers. In all, I saw hundreds of Iraqi fighters.
The Marines have occupied the northeastern edge of Falluja, but most of the town is occupied by mujahedeen–both local Sunni as well as Shiite members of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army who have come in from Baghdad and the south. There seem to be separate groups of Mujahadeen in charge of different parts of Falluja and the various roads in and out. Between the mujahedeen and the Marines’ lines is a no man’s land.
The streets were empty except for a rare ambulance racing to pick up wounded, or the odd family car, usually laden with wounded. We rolled toward one small clinic behind mujahedeen lines, where we delivered our medical supplies from INTERSOS, an Italian NGO.
The clinic building was small, dirty and packed with wounded Iraqis. The Americans have bombed one hospital, and, numerous sources told us, were sniping at people who attempted to enter and exit the other major medical facility. So there were effectively only two small clinics that were safe to care for the hundreds of wounded. (Along with the one we visited, there is one set up in a mechanic’s garage.)