War of Perceptions

Even as U.S. warplanes attacked targets in Fallujah again tonight, Marine officers were working up a proposal to end their month-long siege of the city. At first blush, the outlines of the "solution" seem dicey: up to 1,000 Iraqi soldiers, led by a former major general from Saddam Hussein's army, will enter Fallujah and provide security there. On Thursday afternoon, U.S. Marine units on the edge of town were packing up their gear and preparing to pull back to camps outside of the city. Bulldozers were flattening the 10-foot-tall sand berms that had been set up to mark their front lines.

Even if the plan gets off the ground--a big "if"--it underscores the Coalition's challenges on the battlefield of public opinion. There was never any question that the U.S. Marines could prevail militarily in Fallujah. But in the war of perceptions, the Coalition has been losing ground. With each minaret destroyed (even if it had harbored armed insurgents), and with each injured woman or child (even if they'd been used as "human shields" by Iraqi insurgents), the U.S. military risked losing the sympathies of more and more ordinary Iraqis.

Even before the recent siege, Fallujah was a symbol of Iraqi resistance against U.S. occupation. Now, the city has evolved into an icon of Iraqi nationalism, and its images of civilian casualties are proving much more potent as a motivating force than loyalty to Saddam Hussein ever was.

Fallujah's birth as a nationalistic symbol dates back to April last year, when a clash between Fallujans and U.S. troops left 17 civilians dead. In short order, crudely-produced DVD's appeared in Iraq's teeming marketplaces, deploring the slaughter of innocents and praising the bravery of residents "who didn't submit to humiliation by the Americans." Sample lyrics: "for the sake of the people of Anbar [the province including Fallujah], sad children wonder 'why are we being killed?'" or "All Arabs are talking about our bravery in Fallujah." The visuals for such DVD's range from wounded children in hospitals to scenes from "Blackhawk Down" to, more recently, scenes of fighting from the city under siege by Marines.

It's still not known precisely how many civilians have died in the recent fighting. Hospital authorities in Fallujah estimated at least 600 civilian deaths since combat erupted on April 5. But independent reporting inside Fallujah is difficult and extremely dangerous, not just because of the possibility of armed conflict, but also because kidnappers have abducted dozens of foreigners on the roads between Baghdad and Fallujah. (Western journalists reporting from Fallujah in the past two weeks have mostly been embedded with Marine units.) As a result, much of the coverage of the Iraqi side of the story has come from Arab journalists in Fallujah.

Their presence inside the besieged city has triggered a controversy over the Arabic media's coverage of battles in Fallujah. In mid-April, U.S. CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid criticized the Arabic-language press, " in particular Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya", for reporting falsely that the Marines were deliberately targeting civilians in Fallujah. "We absolutely do not do that, and I think everybody knows that," said the general, who went on to point out that, "It is always interesting to me how Al-Jazeera manages to be at the scene of the crime whenever a hostage shows up or some other problem happens....They have not been truthful in their reporting."

Baghdad's newly appointed National Security Adviser Muwaffak al-Ruba'i, who stepped down as a member of the governing council to take up his new job, threatened the Baghdad bureaus of Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya with closure if they "continue to incite violence and sedition." "If they continue reporting in the way they are reporting now," he said, "there is no question that they should be shut down in this country". In the past, Coalition authorities have shown displeasure at their coverage by shutting down al-Arabiya's Baghdad operations for two months, and restricting Al-Jazeera's access to the Governing Council for one month. The organization Reporters Without Borders criticized al-Ruba'i's comments: "The threats of closure and expulsion ...towards Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya do not help establish a climate of trust between journalists and the authorities."

The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is so concerned about the images and reporting appearing in Arabic media that it's set up a "war room" dedicated to identifying unverified or biased reports, so that they can be quickly refuted. In one example of what the CPA determined to be biased reporting, Al-Jazeera reporter Ahmad Mansour was cited for broadcasting that Al-Jazeera was being targeted. "Last night we were targeted by some tanks, twice," he was quoted as saying. "But we escaped. The U.S. wants us out of Fallujah, but we will stay." The CPA's response: "We value the right of any organization to exercise freedom of speech, so long as this is done responsibly. We only want Al-Jazeera to recognize the immense responsibility it has to its viewers to provide an objective view of events...Reporting from a field of conflict is hazardous for any journalist," he added. "Coalition forces only target combatants."

The Coalition's dissatisfaction with Al-Jazeera, a satellite television station based in Qatar, has been intense enough for U.S. secretary of State Colin Powell to raise the issue with the foreign minister of Qatar, whose government provides funds to the station. (Washington would like Qatar authorities to stop bankrolling the station.) "The false reporting is reporting that we're using cluster bombs in places where we're not using cluster bombs, that we're attacking mosques in places where we're not attacking mosques, or that we're killing people in places where we didn't kill people," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, who called the coverage "inflammatory." Al-Jazeera, often referred to as the Arab world's CNN, is widely viewed in the Middle East, where many see it as more credible than Western news channels.

Now the tussling over Fallujah has escalated into a battle of perceptions, both within Iraq's borders and without. Recent days have seen an international chorus denouncing U.S. military action in Fallujah. "Violent military action by an occupying power against inhabitants of an occupied country will only make matters worse," said U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. "[It's] time for those who prefer restraint and dialogue to make their voices heard."

With international pressure mounting by the day, Washington needs to be seen to be exhausting every last chance for a peaceful solution. Hence the plan for an Iraqi force to enter Fallujah with the intention of securing the restive city. There's no guarantee the plan will succeed in the long-term, or even that it will get a running start.

The proposal calls for the city's security to become the responsibility of an all-Iraqi Fallujah Protection Army (FPA), under the command of a former division commander who is believed to be Lt. Gen. Salah Abboud al-Jabouri, a Fallujan who served as governor of Anbar province under Saddam Hussein. With a Saddam-era Sunni general putting an Iraqi face on security, at least some of the insurgents--many of whom are former regime elements such as army and intelligence personnel--may be more reluctant to attack. Or so the logic goes.

In what was apparently another part of the emerging deal to defuse the Fallujah crisis, an influential Sunni Muslim cleric, Sheik Jamal Shaker Nazzal, was also released from prison by Coalition authorities earlier today. The imam of Fallujah's Grand Mosque, a vocal critic of the U.S. occupation, was detained last October. ""We suffered a lot in prison but with God's help and that of the people of Fallujah I gained my freedom,'' he said. ""Thanks be to God for the victory of Fallujah.''

U.S. officials warned that "fine points" of the Fallujah agreement still had to be worked out. And the solution--if that's what it turns out to be--includes many unknowables. Even though the FPA will be an all-Iraqi unit, it's slated to remain subordinate to the First Marine Expeditionary Force, which opens FPA personnel up to accusations of being "collaborators". Precisely how experienced--or resolute--the Iraqi soldiers will be, given their hasty preparation time, remains a question, too. This certainly isn't the solution that many Marines on the ground, and some of their commanders, envisaged just a day or two ago.

Earlier this week, the U.S. rhetoric was markedly more belligerent. Marine psychological operations teams dropped leaflets over Fallujah warning "Surrender, you are surrounded.... If you are a terrorist, your last day was yesterday...We are coming to arrest you." Using loudspeakers, U.S. psy-ops units also goaded militants by taunting them to come out to fight and by broadcasting taped laughter, a tactic that had proved useful in drawing out anti-Coalition fighters during the invasion last year.

At least the newly-announced FPA plan may buy some more time for Fallujah. But after four days of intense combat involving Ah-1W Super Cobra helicopters and AC-130 Specter gunships--and the apparent scuttling of the Marines' last "Fallujah plan", a scheme to launch joint U.S.-Iraqi security patrols--the city's 200,000 residents can be excused for expecting the worst.