LONDON (Reuters) - Few military operations in Iraq have caused more death, destruction and divisiveness than the dual U.S. assaults on Falluja in 2004.
In April and November that year, more than 10,000 U.S. soldiers and marines overran the city, just outside Baghdad, in an attempt to rid it of the insurgents they said had taken it over and turned it into a den of militancy.
A new play in London casts a scathing eye over America’s actions, calling into question its motives and accusing it of using chemical weapons on Iraqi civilians — one of more than 70 alleged breaches of the Geneva Conventions.
Drawing on interviews with residents, U.S. soldiers who fought there and first-hand accounts, “Fallujah”, directed by Jonathan Holmes, paints a portrait of vengeance meted out by violent American troops fed up with intransigent Iraqis.
As one character, a U.S. sniper, says: “At home when I go hunting, it’s sport. Here when I go hunting, it’s personal.”
The play, staged inside a former factory with the audience standing as the action takes place among them, is told through the eyes of journalists who covered the Falluja assault, aid workers who tried to help out, politicians and military leaders.
Cameramen film parts of the action and project it on to TV screens as if it was real news footage, while military trucks and mannequins in uniform are used to create atmosphere.
It opens with Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, justifying Washington’s “war on terror” as she explains to an interviewer from Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera why the conflict in Iraq will reshape the Middle East for the better.
The action goes on to relate how American commanders misunderstood Iraq and Iraqis, sewed resentment among the population with their heavy-handed tactics and ended up employing a policy of “shoot now, ask questions later”.
One soldier says ahead of the offensive: “The enemy does have a name... He’s called Satan and he’s in Falluja. It’s payback time.”
Holmes, who visited Iraq several times during the research and writing of the play but never managed to get to Falluja, said he’d sent the script to the U.S. military asking for comment or input but never received a reply.
“I wanted to hear what they had to say, but there’s just been nothing,” he told Reuters. “I don’t know whether the production will provoke any reaction — we’ll see.”
Falluja, a Sunni Muslim stronghold known as the “city of mosques”, made the headlines in March 2004 after four U.S. security contractors were hijacked there by insurgents, dragged through the streets, set alight and killed. The burnt body of one was left hanging from a bridge into the city.
Days later, enraged by the barbarity of the deaths, the military launched its first assault. Hundreds of Iraqis and dozens of U.S. troops were killed in a furious offensive but it didn’t succeed in quelling the insurgency.
Six months later, with more planning and firepower, the U.S. marines went back in. A month-long assault destroyed much of the city, killed an estimated 1,300 Iraqi fighters and civilians, and wounded thousands more. More than 100 U.S. troops also died.
Human rights groups accused the U.S. military of excessive force and investigations later revealed that banned weapons, including white phosphorous bombs, had been used.
Washington has acknowledged using white-phosphorous munitions in the 2004 assault against insurgents in Falluja. It says using them against enemy fighters is legal and not banned by any convention.
More than two years on, the city remains restive and anger and resentment towards the American occupation as high as ever.