Courtesy of The Guardian
Their story is the hardest to tell: that of the Iraqi civilians who have remained in the besieged city of Falluja. They have no embedded Western journalists to speak for them, only a few Iraqi correspondents. They cannot leave their homes because of the risk of constant sniper fire. They have no water to drink, no electricity. If they are injured, they have nowhere to go.
Suddenly, the bitter urban war that many feared would greet the advancing coalition troops during their invasion in March last year, has become a reality in Falluja and is threatening elsewhere.
With it has come the awful realities for civilians. 'Anyone who gets injured is likely to die, because there's no medicine and they can't get to doctors,' said Abdul-Hameed Salim, a volunteer with the Iraqi Red Crescent. 'There are snipers everywhere. Go outside and you're going to get shot.'
Rasoul Ibrahim, who fled Falluja on foot with his wife and three children on Thursday morning, said families left in the city were in desperate need. Doctors at Falluja's hospital said there had been an increase in typhoid cases. 'There's no water. People are drinking dirty water. Children are dying,' Ibrahim told aid workers in Habbaniya, a makeshift refugee camp 12 miles to the west of Falluja where about 2,000 families are sheltering. 'People are eating flour because there's no proper food.'
The picture is at best patchy. In the battle for Falluja the fate of those who have remained - perhaps between 30,000 and 50,000 in a city whose population is normally 250,000 - remains largely unknown. And for a reason. One of the first actions of US troops in the hours before the full-scale assault on the city from the north was to the seize its general hospital to prevent what one US officer described as 'insurgent propaganda' over casualty figures.
So the condition of those who have stayed has come out in dribs and drabs: a nine-year-old boy who died of a wound caused by shrapnel to the stomach because he could not reach medical aid; the claim by Mohammed Amer, a doctor at a Falluja clinic, that 12 people had died in the opening assault; and the statements of the aid agencies.
On Friday, an Iraqi journalist leaving the city gave one of the few insights into civilian conditions. Those who have not fled, he said, had stayed indoors for fear of constant explosions. 'If the fighters fire a mortar, US forces respond with huge force,' said the journalist, who asked not to be named. There was heavy damage to houses. American forces were destroying every car they saw for fear of car bombs, he said.
The city had been without power or water for days. Frozen food had spoiled and people could not charge their cellphones. The journalist said US forces controlled the northern half of the city, but insurgents were still fighting in the central Wahda and southerly Shuhada and Sinai districts. 'Some people hadn't prepared well. They didn't stock up on tinned food. They didn't think it would be this bad,' he said.
Yesterday a four-truck Red Crescent convoy of relief supplies was finally given permission to enter the city. The trucks were carrying food, blankets, first-aid kits, medicine and a water purification unit.
There is another group whose names and histories remain obscured amid the statements by senior US officers and the Pentagon that they have killed hundreds of insurgents. They are the US soldiers who have been arriving in their plane-loads at the US military hospital at Landstuhl in Germany, the biggest in Europe. They are the wounded who cannot be treated in the Iraq theatre - suffering from spinal and neurological injuries.
Already, confronted by the surge in combat casualties that has seen 24 US soldiers dead and more than 200 wounded, the hospital is expanding its capacity. Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Jordan, a physician at the hospital's deployed warrior centre, which assesses incoming wounded after their six-hour plane trip, said: 'We've had more cases of bullet wounds than usual, though some have also suffered blast wounds from rocket-propelled grenades.'
These are the costs of war with consequences that go beyond the simple and oft-stated objective of reclaiming Falluja from the insurgents. On one side is an increasing allied death toll that threatens a lingering political impact in both the US and Britain. On the other, is the already escalating 'blow-back' on the interim government of Ayad Allawi and his security forces and on his allies in the US-led multinational forces.
The assault on Falluja has coincided with the insurgents' own November offensive across the areas where they are strongest - most obviously in Mosul, a city of a million people that in recent months has threatened to equal Falluja as the main resistance centre.
Yesterday the Iraqi government was rushing reinforcements to Mosul after co-ordinated attacks against police stations and Iraqi National Guard centres that had in effect driven security forces from the streets and left large areas under the control of the insurgents. According to residents, insurgents were in charge of some areas of south and western Mosul, holding two police stations and manning roadblocks, as Iraq's third-largest city appeared to be sliding out of US and Iraqi control. Residents in neighbourhoods throughout the city on the Tigris, 240 miles north of Baghdad, said there was little visible presence of Iraqi security forces or US troops yesterday. They said armed gunmen held some areas.
'In the south and the west of the city, insurgents are doing patrols to protect banks and shops from looters. They are guarding hospitals, schools and fire stations,' said one man, who would give only his first name, Thamer. Another resident said there were Iraqi National Guards and some US troops positioned at the ends of some of the five bridges that span the Tigris, but other than that, security was light.
Mosul province deputy Khissrou Gouran said that on Friday gunmen had tried to storm a food distribution centre in the city's Yarmouk area, but were forced back by National Guardsmen and security guards. The gunmen were trying to destroy election registration cards held at the centre, he said. Militants in Mosul have also assassinated the head of the city's anti-crime task force, Brigadier-General Mowaffaq Mohammed Dahham, and set fire to his home.
'With the start of operations in Falluja a few days ago, we expected that there would be some reaction in Mosul,' Brigadier-General Carter Ham, commander of US forces in the city, told CNN. He doubted the Mosul attackers were insurgents who fled Falluja and said most 'were from the northern part of Iraq, in and around Mosul and the Tigris river valley south of the city'.
It has not just been in Mosul. In Baghdad on Friday clashes erupted in at least four neighbourhoods of the capital. Clashes also broke out from Hawija and Tal Afar in the north to Samarra - where the police chief was also fired at - and Ramadi in central Iraq.
Such has been the violence in response to the assault on Falluja that politicians and officials are already changing their briefing lines on what the battle for Falluja was supposed to achieve. Six weeks ago officials on both sides of the Atlantic were talking about how they hoped that giving the fighters in the city 'a big slap' would be definitive in ending the insurgency and quickly pave the way for elections in January.
It is a promise that has been made before. The establishment of an Iraqi governing council was supposed to do the same, as was the capture of Saddam and the handover of sovereignty. Yet all have seen the violence get worse.
Now senior military officers in Britain and the US have begun to express private doubts over whether the battle for Falluja will make things better in the long run, or much worse. By yesterday even George Bush was rowing back on expectations that there would be any improvement in Iraq's security situation, instead warning that it could worsen in the run-up to the planned elections in January.
Falluja, it now appears, may be a turning point, but of a kind that London and Washington had not anticipated. For while the US marines may win the battle in the 'city of mosques', the inevitable question will be: at what cost?
Already the fighting in the city, and the preparation for the battle, has overturned hard-held assumptions about the nature of the insurgents. For months, in briefings in Baghdad and elsewhere, the picture of the insurgency was of a chaotic and largely criminal affair, bolstered by ex-Baathists and foreign terrorists from the Zarqawi network.
In recent months, however, intelligence officials in Washington and the UK have drawn up a picture that is infinitely more troubling for the interim government and its sponsors in the west. From an estimate that the fighters number hundreds, latest figures put the numbers of insurgents at up to 20,000 fighters and allies. Even that appears to be a guess. What is also clear is that, far from being loosely organised groups, the insurgency is well funded and led by up to 20 former regime members, including cousins of Saddam, and Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed, a former aide to Saddam and regional Baath party leader.
On the ground, too, the US military appears to have underestimated the sophistication and determination of the insurgents, particularly in Falluja. As the battle has unfolded, US troops have been surprised by the ingenuity of the fighters who, aware that their communications can be listened to by the American soldiers, have used flags to concentrate their attacks.
The insurgents also appear to have fine-tuned their tactics against US helicopters, bringing down four by ground fire from rocket-propelled grenades and small arms in a few days.
In what appears to have been a major tactical error, it now appears that perhaps the majority of insurgents in Falluja, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose alleged presence there was the pretext for the assault, may have been able to slip away to regroup elsewhere.
US military reports show that bands of up to 15 guerrillas at a time left Falluja in the days before the US onslaught. 'That's probably why we've been able to move as fast as we have,' one officer from the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, said. 'We gave them so much fair warning that the only ones who stayed had a death wish.'
There is another view - that those who chose to stay and die did so as an overtly political act of immolation. Because they see their deaths in Falluja not as a last stand, but as the beginning of a wider insurrection.