The Incident at Fallujah
May 7, 2003

Maria Tomchick

On Monday, April 28, the US media focused on Donald Rumsfeld's trip to Baghdad, while a shocking event played out in a town just 30 miles to the west. US troops opened fire on Iraqi civilians, killing 15 people and wounding dozens of demonstrators protesting the US occupation of their town.

Piecing together what really happened in Fallujah is difficult; the main US news sources are contradictory and rely heavily on official military sources. But some truth can be found from careful sifting.

Wire service reports are usually a good place to start. Reuters correspondent Edmund Blair filed the first report directly from the town of Fallujah. US troops camped at a school in the town shot dead 13 protesters after firing live bullets into a crowd of unarmed demonstrators. His short article, "US Troops Kill at Least 13 Iraqis--Witnesses," relies heavily on direct quotes from Iraqi witnesses, including a local Sunni cleric, who told Blair that the demonstrators had gone to the school to demand that US troops leave the building so that the school could reopen. The cleric stressed that it was a peaceful demonstration and that none of the demonstrators were carrying weapons. The article ends with a single paragraph: "US military officials did not immediately comment. But Qatar-based al-Jazeera satellite television quotes American troops as saying they had come under fire after asking the crowd to disperse and were then forced to retaliate."

Next came an AP article by Ellen Knickmeyer, "US Forces Return Fire at Iraq Protest," which, as its title suggests, took pains to present the viewpoint of US troops to the near total exclusion of any Iraqi eyewitness testimony.

Knickmeyer's article seems to be the source for a number of questionable claims about the Fallujah massacre. The article repeatedly claims that the demonstrators were armed and opened fire directly at the school building, forcing US troops in the school to shoot back--the article mentions this in seven separate sections. She only mentions once that protesters claim they were unarmed and peaceful.

Another dubious claim is that the protesters were celebrating Saddam's birthday; Knickmeyer attributes this quote to the operations director at US Central Command. She goes further with her own assumptions of demonstrators' goals that night: " appeared a clash of cultures, at least, was involved...Residents repeatedly denounced battalion members' use of binoculars and night-vision goggles. They accuse soldiers of spying on women from the school's upper floors and rooftop." She also earnestly describes Fallujah as, "a city long considered a stronghold of Saddam support and site of factories suspected of involvement in banned weapons programs" (never mind that no evidence has been found) and as a "Baath Party stronghold," lest we forget that the protesters are to blame for their own deaths.

She also echoes US claims that, when protesters moved to within 10 feet of the schoolhouse wall, three Iraqi men on the roof of a building "nearby" started firing weapons. It was the muzzle flashes, US troops said, that made them start firing down into the crowd. She doesn't even attempt to reconcile the contradiction between Iraqi gunmen on rooftops and, in response, US troops firing downward into a street filled with demonstrators.

Knickmeyer's reportorial instincts eventually come to the fore, near the end of her article: "No bullet holes from incoming fire were obvious at the school, although soldiers said windows had been shot out." Her direct observation is trumped by the second-hand assurances that the windows had been shot out by Iraqi protesters and not broken out by the troops themselves so that they could use the windows for firing positions.

She also notes that US soldiers "fired automatic weapons fire for 20 to 30 minutes." This little bon mot is near the end of her article, while at the beginning of her article, she repeats the absurd assertion that the US troops "only opened fire upon armed men." This is immediately contradicted when she quotes the director of Fallujah's general hospital, who said that three of the dead were boys aged 8 to 10.

The other article picked up and reprinted by local newspapers across the nation was from the New York Times: "US Troops Fire on Iraqi Protesters, Leaving 15 Dead," by Ian Fisher. The Times article was more balanced in the number of sources quoted from each side. Fisher, however, repeats the contention that the demonstrators were armed and were celebrating Saddam Hussein's birthday.

Fisher does includes a few details that Knickmeyer missed. For example, we find that demonstrators had stopped first at the headquarters of another unit of US troops in the Nazzal neighborhood before moving on to the school. Fisher quotes that unit's captain, Mike Riedmuller, who said that some people in the crowd fired off rifles into the air, but that his troops didn't shoot into the crowd because they weren't being shot at directly. They didn't feel threatened. Fisher then says that the same group of people moved on to the school building, where they continued to fire their guns into the air. It was then, according to US troops in the school building, that "several more people with rifles" appeared from houses across the street and began firing at US troops. The three guys on a nearby rooftop have somehow transformed into several people with rifles in the houses across the street.

Fisher also says that the second story of the school building was "pocked with bullet holes, most of them apparently from low caliber guns, and there were half a dozen more holes in the school's concrete wall"--a direct contradiction to what Knickmeyer reported. Fisher also adds that US troops "recovered nine automatic rifles, two pistols and 2,000 rounds of ammunition from the houses across the street, and that the roofs were littered with spent ammunition shells"--more evidence that would point to shooters on the roof and not amongst the crowd, where US troops directed their fire. (Also, rifles are ubiquitous in Iraq, where $25 can buy a looted AK-47 at the local market; indeed, many Iraqis have armed themselves to protect their homes from looters.)

As to the reason why demonstrators were at the school, Fisher cites the night-vision goggles, but also adds that residents were angry at US soldiers for showing pornography to Iraqi children.

A second version of Fisher's article--"US Troops Fire on Iraqi Protesters, Leaving 15 Dead"--was heavily re-edited to give prominence to the US version of events. It replaced most of the eyewitness testimony of Iraqis with quotes from US Central Command.

The Washington Post ("Troops Kill Anti-US Protesters," by Rajiv Chandrasekaran) more clearly lays out the timeline that night. A group of 100 people gathered to protest at the mayor's office at 7:30 PM; some were armed with rifles, which they fired into the air. The group dispersed after US troops warned them away with loudspeakers. Later, a second group gathered at the command post in Nazzal. Again, US troops used loudspeakers to disperse the crowd. Then, at about 9 PM, a third and final group gathered at the school building, but this time the crowd was "boisterous, but unarmed," according to Iraqi witnesses.

Demonstrators in the third group were demanding that soldiers vacate the school so that classes could resume. While some of the conservative men in the crowd complained about night-vision goggles, Chandrasekaran makes it clear that it's common practice for Iraqi women to sleep outside on rooftops in hot weather. From this simple explanation, the reader can surmise that maybe there's some substance to the protesters' complaints.

Chandrasekaran reports, "three other witnesses said they saw some of the protesters shooting into the air as they approached the school, although none said they saw anybody shoot directly at the school...Some of the witnesses said they believed the firing into the air spooked the soldiers, who began shooting at the demonstrators. Others insisted that the US firing was largely unprovoked, save for some rocks that were hurled over the schoolhouse gates."

Other bits can be gleaned from other sources. The LA Times reported that residents of Fallujah were angry at troops not just for seizing a school, but also for removing school desks and piling them up in the street to use as roadblocks ("Tense Standoff Between Troops and Iraqis Erupts in Bloodshed," by Michael Slackman). Slackman depicts Fallujah as a powder keg, with a few twitchy US troops in charge: "privately, soldiers said they have constantly been shot at, stoned and berated. They said the Monday night attack was the last straw."

Slackman also mentions that US troops recovered weapons from the houses across the street, but also says, "They declined to show the weapons or casings to reporters"--an important detail left out of both the AP and New York Times articles. Slackman also writes that the school building "did not appear to have any bullet marks."

There was another Western reporter in Fallujah: Phil Reeves of the British newspaper The Independent ("At least 10 dead as US soldiers fire on school protest"). Reeves reports that some witnesses saw members of the crowd with rifles who were firing into the air. Then Reeves quotes four wounded Iraqis who say that there were no guns among the crowd. To reconcile these two contradictory accounts, Reeves looks at the physical evidence. He writes, "there are no bullet holes visible at the front of the school building or telltale marks of a firefight. The place is unmarked. By contrast, the houses opposite--numbers 5, 7, 9, and 13--are punctured with machine-gun fire, which tore away lumps of concrete the size of a hand and punched holes as deep as the length of a ballpoint pen. Asked to explain the absence of bullet holes, Lt. Col. Nantz said that the Iraqi fire had gone over the soldiers' heads. We were taken to see two bullet holes in an upper window and some marks on a wall, but they were on another side of the school building."

So we have three reporters who saw no bullet holes (Knickmeyer, Slackman, and Reeves) and one who did (Fisher), although it was only a half-dozen or so. Nor does Fisher tell us which side of the building sustained the bullet holes, as Reeves does. Reeves' quote from Nantz that weapons fire went over the soldiers' heads would be more consistent with people firing their weapons straight up into the air. Both Reeves and Slackman portray the tense atmosphere in Fallujah, where residents routinely throw rocks at occupying troops. Slackman suggests that US troops snapped after days, if not weeks, of tension. Four reporters (Blair, Chandrasekaran, Slackman, and Reeves) all report that the main goal of the demonstrators was to reopen their local school, a reasonable demand met with unreasonable force.

Physical evidence seems to support the conclusion that although the demonstration was "boisterous." with a few participants carrying light weapons that they fired up into the air, US troops overreacted and sprayed a crowd of largely unarmed people with deadly, automatic weapons fire for 20 to 30 minutes to "disperse the crowd"--a technique that should qualify the incident at Fallujah as a war crime.