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Foreign Policy in Focus: The Under-Examined Story of Fallujah

December 1, 2011 by  


By Hannah Gurman

Seven years after the U.S. invasion of Fallujah, there are reports of an alarming rise in the rates of birth defects and cancer. But the crisis, and its possible connection to weapons deployed by the United States during the war, remains woefully under-examined.

On November 8, 2004, U.S. military forces launched Operation Phantom Fury 50 miles west of Baghdad in Fallujah, a city of 350,000 people known for its opposition to the Saddam regime.
The United States did not expect to encounter resistance in Fallujah, nor did it initially face any in the early days of the war. The first sign of serious hostility appeared in April 2003, after U.S. soldiers  from the 82nd Airborne division fired into a crowd of protesters demonstrating against the occupation and the closure of their local school building, killing 17 civilians and injuring 70. The following February, amid mounting tensions, a local militia beheaded four Blackwater employees and strung their bodies from a bridge across the Euphrates River. U.S. forces temporarily withdrew from Fallujah and planned for a full onslaught.

Following the evacuation of civilians, Marines cordoned off the city, even as some residents scrambled to escape. Thirty to fifty thousand people were still inside the city when the U.S. military launched a series of airstrikes, dropping incendiary bombs on suspected insurgent hideouts. Ground forces then combed through targeted neighborhoods house by house. Ross Caputi, who served as a first private Marine during the siege, has said that his squad and others employed “reconnaissance by fire,” firing into dwellings before entering to make sure nobody inside was still alive. Caputi later co-founded the group Justice for Fallujah, which dedicated the week of November 14 to a public awareness campaign about the impact of the war on the city’s people.

By the end of the campaign, Fallujah was a ghost town. Though the military did not tally civilian casualties, independent reports put the number somewhere between 800 and 6,000. As The Washington Post reported in April 2005, more than half of Fallujah’s 39,000 homes were damaged, of which 10,000 were no longer habitable. Five months after the campaign, only 90,000 of the city’s evacuated residents had returned.

The majority still lacked electricity, and the city’s sewage and water systems, badly damaged in the campaign, were not functional. A mounting unemployment crisis — exacerbated by security checkpoints, which blocked the flow of people and goods into and out of the city — left young residents of Fallujah especially vulnerable to recruitment by the resistance.

The Official Success Story

Although the initial picture of the devastated city looked grim, by 2007 Fallujah had become a key part of the emerging narrative of successful counterinsurgency in Iraq. At a press conference in April of that year, Marine Colonel Richard Simcock declared that progress was “phenomenal” and that Fallujah was an “economically strong and flourishing city.” According to the official narrative that has since crystallized, the second siege of Fallujah turned out to be a major turning point in the war. “By taking down Fallujah, the Marines denied a sanctuary for the insurgents,” said Richard Natonski, commander of the 1st Marine Division during Phantom Fury, in an oral history published by the Marines in 2009. In contrast to the insurgents who relied on “brutal tactics,” he explained, the Marines were able to win over the good will of the people. This contributed to the larger “Awakening” in Anbar province, the linchpin of counterinsurgency’s “success” in Iraq.

Official “progress” narratives of war rarely tell the whole story, especially when it comes to the war’s long-term effects on the civilian population. Seven years after the second siege of Fallujah, despite lucrative U.S.-funded contracts to rebuild infrastructure, much of the city is still in ruins, and unemployment remains high. As terrorist attacks in Anbar and across the country have risen in the past year, security is increasingly tenuous. In August, a car bomb exploded at a police station near Fallujah, killing five officers and wounding six more.

Of the current problems in Fallujah, the most alarming is a mounting public health crisis. In the years since the invasion, doctors in Fallujah have reported drastic increases in the number of premature births, infant mortality, and birth defects — babies born without skulls, missing organs, or with stumps for arms and legs. Fallujah General Hospital reported that, out of 170 babies born in September 2009, 24 percent died within the first seven days, of which 75 percent were deformed — as compared to August 2002, when there were 530 babies born, only six deaths, and one deformity. As the years go by, the problem seems to be getting worse, and doctors are increasingly warning women not to have children.

Many residents have suspected a link between the drastic rise in birth defects and the weapons deployed by U.S. military during the war. The United States has admitted to using white phosphorus in Fallujah, a toxin in incendiary bombs that causes severe burns. But it denies targeting civilians or employing a class of armor-piercing weapons that contain depleted uranium, a byproduct of nuclear weapons used in the production of munitions and armory and known to cause mutagenic illnesses.

The Science and Its Critics

Two recent studies led by Dr. Christopher Busby, a chemistry professor at the University of Ulster who specializes in environmental toxicology, have attempted to document and explain Fallujah’s health crisis. The first was an epidemiological study conducted by a team of 11 researchers who visited 711 households in Fallujah. Published in the December 2010 issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, it found that congenital birth defects, including neural tube, cardiac, and skeletal malformations, were 11 times higher than normal rates, and rose to their highest levels in 2010. The study also found a seven-to-38-fold increase in several site-specific cancers, as well as a drastic shift in the ratio of female-to-male births, with 15 percent fewer boys born in the study period.

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