Atrocity in Fallujah

By Robert Fisk

01 April 2004

"The bodies were hanging upside down on each side of the bridge. They had no hands, no feet, one had no head." My old Iraqi friend had been driving into Fallujah just after the massacre, the stoning, the burning. He was shaking as he told me what he saw. "They were hanging upside down above the highway, on the old railway bridge which bridge, now a road bridge. The people of Fallujah were just driving over the bridge as if nothing was happening, right past the bodies." The bridge is on the west side of the Sunni Muslim city, across the Euphrates river, and the corpses had been tied to the girders about six feet above the road. "When we left, there were no helicopters, no police, no soldiers, it all seemed quite normal; except for the bodies. They were burnt brown. I couldn't tell if they were men or women."

In fact, there were four Western men slaughtered in Fallujah yesterday - all contractors for the Americans, some apparently armed - and they had been dragged from their cars, mutilated, stoned, burnt, beaten with iron pipes. One of them was decapitated, then dragged through the streets behind a car. What the Anglo-American occupation power later called a "particularly brutal" crime - a somewhat restrained comment in the face of such barbarity - was all too real on the videotapes filmed by Iraqi camera crews in Fallujah but which were not shown on Western television stations last night.

Another man gave a chilling description of how the men were dragged from their car, begging for their lives. "They had gasoline splashed on them and were set alight," he said.

It was an especially terrible day in Iraq. Five US Marines were killed only 20 miles from Fallujah by a roadside bomb and 15 Iraqis were wounded by a car bomb in the city of Baquba which had been intended for an Iraqi police convoy.

As usual, Iraqi dead were not counted by the occupation powers. But it will be the tapes that will be remembered by all who saw them - and by Arabs who were able to watch most of them, uncensored, on their own broadcasting channels.

They show the two burning vehicles and two men lying beside them. One, clearly a Westerner, is lying on his back, in brown trousers but with his shirt pulled up to his chest, staring at the sky. A tide of burning petrol embraces the corpse and his hands are standing claw-like above his chest. A crowd of screaming civilians - many shouting Allahu Akhbar (God is Great), and "Fallujah will be free" - then use a metal hook to drag another smouldering body from beneath the second vehicle. The youths are making V-signs at the camera as a man picks up an iron pipe and smashes it repeatedly on the charred remains. A second man steps forward to kick the head until it is completely severed from the body.

These were the horrors of Iraq yesterday, pictures which would have reminded the world of the American debacle in Somalia had they been shown outside the Middle East. For the crowd truss up one of the bodies with yellow tape, tie it to a car and then drag it down the main street towards the Euphrates bridge, all the while jumping up and down and laughing.

Cars and trucks can be seen hooting in impatience to overtake this obscene cortège as if such horrors were an everyday occurrence. There were many Westerners in Iraq last night who were praying that they would not be. One of the dead men - who were, in the words of one Iraqi in Fallujah, "slaughtered like sheep" - appeared to be carrying military identification tags. An US passport lay next to another. One local civilian said the mujahedin, "holy warriors", had thrown two grenades at each car before dragging the occupants onto the road.

In the past few weeks, attacks on foreigners have happened almost daily. Two Finns have been killed, along with a British and Canadian contractor, two American aid workers - one a woman - and two US missionaries, including another woman. The Americans have not suffered their current scale of casualties for more than two months.

Only a day earlier, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the American deputy director of military operations in Iraq, was boasting that the US Marines in Fallujah were encountering fewer security problems and were "quite pleased with how they are moving progressively forward." Even more ironic was General Kimmitt's extraordinary distinction at a press conference between "terrorists" and "insurgents." He characterised the violence in Fallujah - the scene of yesterday's little massacre - as the work of "insurgents"; there was a difference, he said, between "former regime elements, perhaps trained in the Iraqi army" and who attacked soldiers and the Fallujah police station and "terrorists" who went in for "suicidal, spectacular attacks" which attack Iraqi army barracks, hotels, mosques and religious festivals in Karbala and Baghdad. These, he insisted, involved al-Qa'ida, Abu Mussab al-Zarkawi - the latest bogeyman whom the Americans publicised last month - and other groups.

The truth is that most US units have reported no "foreign fighters" in their areas of occupation and, despite General Kimmitt's claims, the US military largely believes the growing number of attacks in Iraq are being carried out by home-grown guerrilla organisations. It's the same problem the Americans have faced from the start: explaining how Iraqis whom they allegedly came to "liberate" should want to kill them.

The headquarters of the US administrator, Paul Bremer, is now surrounded by massive walls of concrete and steel, checkpoints of sandbags and iron gates and squads of heavily armed US troops. Yet the palace grounds are hit by mortar fire almost nightly. So what foreigner - or Iraqi for that matter - is now safe here?

I was outside one Western television office in Baghdad yesterday, observing yet another concrete wall being erected around it. Armed Iraqi militiamen stood at every corner of the compound and British security men were on guard inside. If Mr Bremer's old presidential palace with its triumphal gateway now resembles the seat of the old British Raj, the office I visited was beginning to look like those fading photos of the British residency at Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny. For this is what we have now come to in Baghdad: foreigners on the run.