Fallujah's Untold Story: Civilian Casualties

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Eyewitness accounts from Fallujah make clear that U.S. forces are engaged in intense urban combat, apparently with all sorts of collateral damage -- mosques, hospitals, ambulances, women and children.

A Fallujah hospital director early in the week told The Associated Press that about 600 are dead, most of them civilians. But American editors have ignored or downplayed that fact.

Which is not surprising. They also shrugged at research by New York-based Human Rights Watch suggesting that the U.S. military could have avoided killing hundreds of Iraqi civilians simply "by abandoning two misguided military tactics": dropping cluster bombs on populated areas and employing "decapitation" strikes -- the hot new jargon for blowing up everything within a 100-meter radius of where it thinks an Iraqi villain might be. HRW says that in 50 such cases, it killed none of its targets and dozens of civilians.

However one comes down on the morality or importance of killing innocent women and children, it's not Washington's stated mission; it in fact hugely complicates the stated mission. Yet the U.S. media and government treat this as a minor distraction. As General Tommy Franks so succinctly puts it, "We don't do body counts."

For that one has to turn to Qatar-based Al-Jazeera. Its correspondents are in the thick of Fallujah, shouting to be heard over airstrikes and gunfire.

Al-Jazeera is of, by and for the Arab world. So while American networks speak of "insurgents," Al-Jazeera speaks of "resistance fighters" and suggests the U.S. military is doing little to avoid civilian deaths. U.S. officials counter that Al-Jazeera is, in one top general's words, "not truthful."

CNN, incredibly, asked Al-Jazeera why it was bothering to report civilian casualties.

The network's Daryn Kagan -- last seen confusing viewers about whether the boy who yawned at a George W. Bush speech really existed -- this week interviewed Al-Jazeera's editor, Ahmed Al-Sheik. She cited U.S. officials as saying, "The pictures and the reporting that Al- Jazeera put on the air only adds to the sense of frustration and anger and adds to the problems in Iraq," and asked, "In fact, is your network misrepresenting the facts?"

"What we have been showing represents what takes place on the ground," Al-Sheik replied. "We have been showing bodies of people who were killed, bodies and the graveyards where people are burying them ... pictures of U.S. helicopter gunships and F-16 fighter jets bombing Fallujah."

Kagan then countered with a garbled question exactly reflective of the United States' garbled thinking about the non-American planet:

"Isn't the story, though, bigger than just the simple numbers, with all due respect to the Iraqi civilians who have lost their lives -- the story bigger than just the numbers of people who were killed or the fact that they might have been killed by the U.S. military, that the insurgents, the people trying to cause problems within Fallujah, are mixing in among the civilians, making it actually possible that even more civilians would be killed, that the story is what the Iraqi insurgents are doing, in addition to what is the response from the U.S. military?"

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the media watchdog, scathingly takes the measure of this: "When reports from the ground are describing hundreds of civilians being killed by U.S. forces, CNN should be looking to Al-Jazeera's footage to see if it corroborates those accounts -- not badgering Al-Jazeera's editor about why he doesn't suppress that footage."

Matt Bivens is a former editor of The Moscow Times.