On November 8, the American army launched its biggest ever assault on the Iraqi city of Falluja, considered a stronghold for rebel fighters. The US said the raid had been a huge success, killing 1,200 insurgents. Most of the city's 300,000 residents, meanwhile, had fled for their lives. What really happened in the siege of Falluja? In a joint investigation for the Guardian and Channel 4 News, Iraqi doctor Ali Fadhil compiled the first independent reports from the devastated city, where he found scores of unburied corpses, rabid dogs - and a dangerously embittered population Watch an extract from the documentary
Tuesday January 11, 2005
December 22 2004
It all started at my house in Baghdad. I packed my equipment, the camera and the tripod. Tariq, my friend, told me not to take it with us. "The fighters might search the car and think that we are spies." Tariq was frightened about our trip, even though he is from Falluja and we had permission from one group of fighters to enter under their protection. But Tariq, more than anyone, understands that the fighters are no longer just one group. He is quite a character, Tariq: 32 and an engineer with a masters degree in embryo implantation, he works now at a human rights institute called the Democratic Studies Institute for Human Rights and Democracy in Baghdad. He is also deeply into animal rights.
Foolishly, I took a pill to try to keep down the flu, which made me sleepy. It was 9am when we crossed the main southern gate out of Baghdad, taking care to stay well clear of American convoys. The southern gate is the scene of daily attacks on the Americans by the insurgents - either a car-bomb or an ambush with rocket-propelled grenades.
It took just 20 minutes from Baghdad to reach the area known as the "triangle of death", where the kidnapped British contractor Kenneth Bigley was held and finally beheaded in the town of Latifya. It is supposed to be a US military-controlled zone, but insurgents set up checkpoints here. As the road became more rural and more isolated, I got nervous that at any moment we would be stopped by carjackers and robbed of our expensive equipment. At a checkpoint a hooded face came to the window; he was carrying an old AK47 on his shoulder and looking for a donation towards the jihad. There were six fighters in total, all hooded. The driver and Tariq both made a donation; I was frightened he would search the car and find the camera, so I gave him my Iraqi doctor's ID card, hoping that would work. He apologised and asked that we excuse him.
Now, there was nothing ahead but the sky and the desert. It was 1.30pm and a bad time to use this road; we had been told that carjackers were particularly active at this time of day. Tariq pointed out four young men dressed in red, their two motorbikes parked by the side of the road. They were planting a small, improvised explosive device made out of a tin of cooking oil for the next American convoy to leave the base outside Falluja.
It was 3.30pm before we got to Habbanya, a tourist resort on a lake supplied with fresh water by the Euphrates, which was once controlled by Uday, Saddam's oldest son. It was here that Fallujans, who used to be wealthy as they supplied a lot of the top military for Saddam's army, came for holidays.
Now the place was freezing, and full of refugees. All the holiday houses were crammed with people, sometimes two families to a room. The first family we came across had been there since a month before the attack started. A man called Abu Rabe'e came up. He was 59 and used to be a builder; he said he had a message for our camera. "We're not looking for this sort of democracy, this attacking of the city and the people with planes and tanks and Humvees." He had also fled Falluja with his family. They were all living in a former mechanic's garage in Habbanya.
Most of the people we spoke to in Habbanya were poor and uneducated, and had fled Falluja in anticipation of the US attack. Some were in tents; others were sharing the old honeymoon suites where newlyweds used to come when this was a holiday resort. They squabbled among themselves to persuade me to film the conditions they were living in. There was still a fairground in Habbanya, but nothing was working. In the middle of the bumper cars an old lady had pitched a tent with bricks, where she was living with her son. I tried to talk to her but she told me to go away. There was no cooking gas in Habbanya, so the Fallujan refugees were cutting down trees to keep warm and cook food.
Then someone came up and said the resistance fighters had heard we were asking questions. We decided to put the camera away and go to a friendly village that our driver knew. It was also filled with refugees from Falluja.
One 50-year-old man, a major in the Iraqi Republican Guards under the former regime, took us in. There were four families squeezed into one apartment, all of them once wealthy. The major, like the others, was sacked after the liberation when the US disbanded the army and police. Now jobless, his house in Falluja was wrecked and he was a refugee with his five children and wife near the town where he used to spend his holidays. He was angry with the Americans, but also with the Iraqi rebels, whom he blamed, alongside the clerics in the mosques, for causing Falluja to be wrecked.
"The mujahideen and the clerics are responsible for the destruction that happened to our city; no one will forgive them for that," he said with bitterness.
"Why are you blaming them - why don't you blame the Americans and Allawi?" said Omar, the owner of the apartment.
"We told the mujahideen to leave it to us ordinary Fallujans, but those bloody bastards, the sheikhs and the clerics, are busy painting some bloody mad picture of heaven and martyrs and the victory of the mujahideen," said Ali, another refugee. "And, of course, the kids believe every word those clerics say. They're young and naive, and they forget that this is a war against the might of the machine of the American army. So they let those kids die like this and our city gets blown up with the wind."
I wanted to ask the tough old Republican guard why they had let these young muj have the run of the city, but I actually didn't have to. I remember being in Falluja just before the fighting started and seeing a crowd gathered around a sack that was leaking blood. A piece of white A4 paper was stuck on to the sack, which read: "Here is the body of the traitor. He has confessed to acting as a spotter for American planes and was paid $100 a day."
At the same time as we were standing looking at the sack, I knew I would be able to buy a CD of the man in this sack making his confession before he was beheaded in any CD shop in Falluja. These were the people who controlled Falluja now - not old majors from Saddam's army.
In the morning we went back towards Falluja and heard that there were queues of people waiting to try to get back into the city. The government had made an announcement saying that the people from some districts could start to go back home; they promised compensation. About midday we got a mile east of the city and saw that four queues had formed near the American base. They were mostly men, waiting for US military ID to allow them back home.
The men were angry: "This is a humiliation. I say no more than that. These IDs are to make us bow Fallujan heads in shame," one of them said.
I met Major Paul Hackett, a marine officer in the Falluja liaison base. He said that the US military was not trying to humiliate anyone, but that the IDs were necessary for security. "I mean, my understanding is that ultimately they can hang this ID card on a wall and keep it as a souvenir," he said.
They took prints of all my fingers, two pictures of my face in profile, and then photographed my iris. I was now eligible to go into Falluja, just like any other Fallujan.
But it was late by then, somewhere near 5pm (the curfew is at 6pm). After that anyone who moves inside the city will be shot on sight by the US military. Tomorrow, we would try again to get into the city.
At around 8am, Tariq and I drove towards Falluja. We didn't believe that we might actually get into the city.
The American soldiers at the checkpoint were nervous. The approach to the checkpoint was covered in pebbles so we had to drive very slowly. The soldiers spent 20 minutes searching my car, then they bodysearched Tariq and me. They gave me a yellow tape to put on to the windscreen of the car, showing I had been searched and was a contractor. If I didn't have this stripe of yellow, a US sniper would shoot me as an enemy car.
By 10am we were inside the city. It was completely devastated, destruction everywhere. It looked like a city of ghosts. Falluja used to be a modern city; now there was nothing. We spent the day going through the rubble that had been the centre of the city; I didn't see a single building that was functioning.
The Americans had put a white tape across the roads to stop people wandering into areas that they still weren't allowed to enter. I remembered the market from before the war, when you couldn't walk through it because of the crowds. Now all the shops were marked with a cross, meaning that they had been searched and secured by the US military. But the bodies, some of them civilians and some of them insurgents, were still