Open Season

It's tempting to try to explain away the horror of the corpse-kicking crowd in Fallujah. The town is a special case, says this reasoning. A longtime Baathist stronghold, during Saddam's regime it was a sort of company town for his Mukhabarat, the secret police, in which young men served apprenticeships in torturing, snitching and assassinating. And during the opening days of the war, a misplaced bomb destroyed the family home of a prominent tribal leader, killing him and 16 members of his family. Some claim Sheik Malik had been a secret friend of the Americans, but now his huge tribe, the Yarba, are sworn to revenge.

Another factor: in the first weeks of the U.S.-led occupation, a demonstration went wild and ended up with American soldiers from the 82d Airborne shooting 15 protesters dead in the streets. In this tribal Sunni Triangle town, that meant dozens more close relatives sworn to revenge. Then the U.S.'s First Marine Expeditionary Unit took over a few weeks ago, with much fanfare from its officers, who announced they were going to show their Army predecessors how to run a hearts-and-minds campaign. But they had hardly unpacked their rucksacks when another demonstration went wild, shots were fired from the crowd and five locals were killed--plus an Arab cameraman for ABC-TV and a U.S. Marine.

So it would be tempting to say that Fallujah hardly typifies this war, but it would be wrong. Certainly there are few communities where anti-American sentiment is as widespread as in Fallujah. But the savagery and utter abandonment of any sort of civilized conduct, so amply demonstrated on the streets of the city Wednesday, is actually pretty typical of the way the opposition has chosen to fight its war against American occupation everywhere else, as well. Wednesday's attack itself was hardly the worst thing we've seen; in fact, since the victims had been armed, attacking them was arguably within the rules of war. Many of the attacks we've seen in just the past 10 days were clearly not; the victims often were attacked merely because they were civilians, many of them not even from Coalition countries. They included two Finnish businessmen, a German and a Dutchman, four missionaries working on a water project and a Time magazine translator. It's become increasingly clear that any foreigner, and anyone working even remotely with foreigners, has become what the opposition regards as fair game, armed, or not. Attacks on Iraqis have been--if possible--even more savage, and divorced from any possible justification. Suicide bombs and ambushes of Iraqi policemen, who have now lost more men than the occupation forces, are one thing; the Americans chose and trained them. But the Shia who were slaughtered by teams of suicide bombers during the Ashoura festival in Karbala last month were doing nothing more than peacefully exercising their religious beliefs--something denied them under Saddam's Sunni rule.

So we should really not be too surprised at what happened in the streets of Fallujah; it's perfectly in character. In other places, the opposition doesn't have the numbers and widespread support they do in Fallujah; but they have the same vicious streak. After four men with AK-47s ambushed the two unarmored vehicles, firing into them until they were sure the occupants were all dead, they immediately left the scene. Then the crowd took over. The victims' cars were set afire, and their bodies pulled from them and set upon, kicked, dragged, stoned, hacked at and beaten with metal poles. A 10-year-old boy chanting slogans for Saddam stomped on the face of one of the corpses, while his elders danced around encouraging him. Several men took up shovels and dismembered a couple of the victims. Pieces were cut off and strung up on poles. They were tied to a pickup truck, to a small car and to a donkey, and dragged through the streets in the center of Fallujah, where two of the bodies were hoisted onto a bridge and hung there, for passersby to abuse the bodies further. There's even one account, impossible to verify, that one of the victims was still alive when set afire. Those who couldn't get to the bodies themselves stoned and pounded on the destroyed vehicles. When police recovered the bodies many hours later, they could only find three--the fourth either stolen, or destroyed beyond any recognition as human remains.

Coaliltion spokesmen tried to depict that as the work of a small minority, even in Fallujah. "The cowards and ghouls who acted yesterday represent the worst of society," said Coalition spokesman Dan Senor today. Unfortunately, in Fallujah, they represent most of the society.

What is surprising is that four American contractors would have put themselves into such a vulnerable situation, in such a well-known trouble spot. The victims apparently worked for Blackwater Security Consulting, a North Carolina-based security company that specializes in close-protection VIP details and has the high-profile, no-bid contract to provide bodyguards for L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator. U.S. officials have released little detail about why they were in Fallujah, except to say they were guarding food convoys into the area. Not only does that sound improbable, but there was no sign of any trucks being escorted by them at the time. However, Iraqi eyewitnesses interviewed on the street in Fallujah today say the two SUVs carrying the four victims were actually part of a four-vehicle convoy but that the two other SUVs managed to escape after the attack. Standard operating procedure for close-protection details is to put the people they're protecting into more expensive and less maneuverable armored cars, and then follow in soft-skinned cars with the shooters. But U.S. officials insist there were only two cars.

The incident is inexplicably mysterious, even two days later. Witnesses in Fallujah insisted that one of the four victims, all of whom had been armed with sidearms and long weapons, was a woman, described as fair-skinned, red-headed and dressed in a military uniform. Military spokesmen, however, described all four as men. When did it happen, even? Witnesses say 11 a.m. or noon on Wednesday, Iraqi police say 9 or 10 a.m. and Coalition spokesmen say about 8 a.m. And why did the Marines, who have troops stationed on the outskirts of Fallujah, fail to respond to the scene, either during or after the attack--at least not as of late this afternoon, 30 hours after the incident?

No doubt the Marines were concerned that the initial attack was only to bait the military to come in and get jumped on by an even bigger ambush, a la Mogadishu. But any sign of vacillation seemed likely to embolden the insurgents into further attacks, and today the Coalition's military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, all but declared war on Fallujah. "We also have the opportunity to persuade the people of Fallujah that there are other alternatives to violence. One of those alternatives to violence is not for the Coalition forces to stay outside of Fallujah. They are coming back. They are going to hunt down the people responsible for this bestial act. It is up to ... people in Fallujah to determine if they want to do it with a fight or without a fight." He suggested that Fallujah "city officials should get out from behind their desks" and turn the culprits over--or else. There's little chance of that, and the "or else" won't be pretty, whatever happens.