'They want Zarqawi. They can't kill him so they're killing us'

By Kim Sengupta

17 October 2004

Independent

The missiles struck at just after 3am with devastating effect. Eight members of the al-Jabouri family were killed as they slept, their home destroyed. The following morning the US military issued a statement saying that fighters loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, America's number one enemy in Iraq, had been taken out in a precision strike in Fallujah.

The town had been pounded nightly for three weeks, with the Americans insisting that those killed and maimed were insurgents mainly from Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group, which kidnapped and murdered the British hostage Ken Bigley and his two American colleagues. Repeated protests by doctors in local hospitals that the vast majority of the casualties are civilians have been dismissed as rebel propaganda. Now the town is waiting for an imminent ground and air assault, amid fears of a bloodbath.

Among the dead in the al-Jabouri family were 26-year-old Atika, who was six months pregnant, her three-year-old son Omar, her husband Thamir, 28, her sister Athra and her mother. Atika's prematurely born baby lived for a few hours after her, but they were buried in the same grave.

The only member of the family to come out alive was Atika's five-year-old daughter, Ayisha. She was asleep, hugging her grandmother, who was killed instantly. Miraculously the little girl survived, but she was badly injured, burnt and lacerated by shrapnel and flying glass. Ahmed Fawzi, Ayisha's uncle, recalled: "I live nearby and ran over after hearing the explosions. There was nothing left. We had to bring out the bodies one by one." Ayisha, with injuries to her shoulder, arms, back and legs, was taken to a hospital in nearby Ramadi for treatment. She is now being looked after by the family of her mother's uncle, Khalil Hammadi, in a village outside Fallujah. Lying on a mattress on the floor, she does not betray the considerable pain she must be under. But the normally bright and inquisitive girl is very quiet.

Mr Fawzi said: "When in hospital in Ramadi, she overheard some discussion about an operation on a boy called Omar. She said to us afterwards 'I hear them talking about Omar'. She did not know at the time he was dead. That is the only time she had talked about her brother. She has not once asked anything about her mother or father. It is very sad, but what can we do?"

Mazin Younis, an Iraqi -born human rights activist from Manchester who visited Fallujah to investigate the damage, found that the overwhelming number of attacks have been on civilian targets. Mr Younis, who as a legal case worker helped gather evidence of alleged abuse by British troops in southern Iraq, is attempting to raise funds so that Ayisha can get medical treatment abroad, and hopes that the same help can be extended to other injured children in Fallujah.

"People in Fallujah say they are being punished," said Mr Younis. "Ordinary people are being killed. I had a meal in a kebab restaurant called Hajji Hussain. It was full of families. Two days later it was bombed by the Americans." The US military maintained the kebab house was in fact a front for a command and control centre for Tawhid and Jihad.

There are already 1,000 US troops, backed up by artillery, tanks and Iraqi government troops, surrounding Fallujah. The Americans and Iraq's interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, have demanded that the town hand over Zarqawi, supposedly based there, or face retribution. Civic leaders have protested that this is an impossible demand. They point out that the Americans, for all their military might and a reward of $25m, have not managed to capture or kill the Jordanian-born militant. Rahim Haidar Mohammed, a resident of Fallujah, said: "The Americans have created a bogeyman in Zarqawi. We haven't seen him. They can't kill him, so they kill us. We are just waiting for the big attack."

Many see the Fallujah deployment as retaliation for last week's bombings in the Green Zone in Baghdad, in which four Americans were killed. The bitter Fallujah clashes of last April were also regarded as retribution, following the lynching of four US contractors. After a bloody siege for weeks, and 600 Iraqi dead, US-led forces withdrew, leaving the town to the insurgents.

At the time President George Bush said: "Our military commanders will do all that is necessary to secure Fallujah." The commander of the Marines who carried out the assault later disagreed with that policy of aggression, saying it destroyed the trust being built with local people through reconstruction projects.

"We felt we had a method that we wanted to apply to Fallujah, that we ought to let the situation settle before we appeared to be attacking out of revenge," said Lt Gen James Conway. But he added: "We follow orders. We had our say ... We saluted smartly and went about our attack."