How do you defend the destruction of Fallujah to the people who live there?

I must confess to uncertainty: I can't see any way to hold elections unless this city is reclaimed
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The Independent Online

This weekend, I received an e-mail from a British Iraqi called Abdul. "You wrote this week about the snobbery facing 'chavs' in Britain. Hmm ... I don't think the underclass of this country are under threat of mass aerial bombardment, detention of all males under 45, their ghettoes facing the prospects of being razed to the ground, etc. On the other hand, the town where my mother originates from (Fallujah), is facing total and utter destruction. 'For its own good,' mind."

This weekend, I received an e-mail from a British Iraqi called Abdul. "You wrote this week about the snobbery facing 'chavs' in Britain. Hmm ... I don't think the underclass of this country are under threat of mass aerial bombardment, detention of all males under 45, their ghettoes facing the prospects of being razed to the ground, etc. On the other hand, the town where my mother originates from (Fallujah), is facing total and utter destruction. 'For its own good,' mind."

He continued: "Mum's lost all contact with her parents (both in their late seventies ... and never members of the evil Baath Party) who, we assume, are still trapped in Fallujah. An uncle from Baghdad set off a couple of days ago to try to locate them. My granddad has very advanced motor neurone disease and isn't particularly mobile. I guess we may as well do the janaza [funeral prayer] for them now. You're free to write whatever you want Johann. I just think that seeing as you were one of the loudest 'liberal-hawk' cheerleaders for invading Iraq, it would be nice to read a few words about the impending massacre that's gonna happen in Mum's home town ... one of the fruits of your agitation for war."

I began to write a response - from the safety of my nice cosy flat - when the news came through that the military assault on Fallujah had begun. No matter what I wrote in my reply to Abdul, I couldn't shake off the memory of that American who ended up declaring during the Vietnam War: "We must destroy the village in order to save the village." Am I saying we must destroy Fallujah in order to save Fallujah? Is that the liberal-hawk position now? Have we sunk so far, so fast?

Tony Blair, Christopher Hitchens and most other liberal hawks have a firm answer to this anxiety. Look, they say, there are two forces at work here. On one side, you have a town - Fallujah - seized by Sunni militants who rally to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. They speak only for the alienated 20 per cent of the Iraqi population who cannot bear the fact that the "stupid" and "dirty" Shia are about to assume power in a free election. They have imposed sharia law and Sunni supremacy within Fallujah; they bind women in burqas and stone them if they dare to walk the streets unveiled. They stand for the most barbaric and extreme of fundamentalisms and - in their clear public statements - dismiss democracy as a form of prostitution. On the other side, you have the US and Britain who - however imperfectly - are trying to hold a free and open election in just three months. How can anybody who believes in democracy throw up their hands and declare themselves neutral between them?

I can feel the force of this argument - and then I try to tell it to Abdul. Your grandparents are in the wrong place at the wrong time, like the 100,000 other Iraqis who have died. They are casualties in a war that will ultimately save lives. If Fallujah is not reclaimed - if a pocket of Sunni resistance is allowed to continue forever sabotaging and attacking Iraq's police and hospitals and any hope of democracy - far more people like your grandparents will die in the long term. (And, of course, if there had been no war at all - if Saddam and sanctions and Uday and Qusay had been left in place - at least half a million people like your grandparents would have carried on dying year on year on year forever into an eternal Baathist sunset).

I can't quite persuade myself of this. I turn to my Iraqi friends who run the Iraqi Prospect Organisation (IPO) - a campaign group of British-based Iraqi democrats who are in constant contact with their Iraqi friends and relatives - for answers. Yasser Alaskary has just returned from the country. As Iraqis, the IPO have a degree of access denied to even the best foreign correspondents.

"When explaining Iraq to British people, you have to distinguish between the Shia and Sunni resistances," he explains. He has a lot of sympathy for the Shia resistance. "I've talked to the young guys who are leading it, and the foot soldiers too," he says. "They are angry about the unemployment and the electricity and the drains and just the daily pain of occupation, which has been handled abysmally by the Bush administration. The Shia resistance want a democratic election and then for the Americans to go home. They want Iraq to succeed. That's why we totally opposed firing on Najaf. They should have negotiated from the beginning.

"Now the Shia have been reassured by Sistani and the occupiers that the elections will be open and fair, Muqtada al-Sadr and the rest of the Shia resistance have agreed to hand over their arms and stand for office," he continues. "Negotiations worked; there was no need for the senseless violence we saw there. It's an amazing development. The Shia are looking to the elections now. The roots for democracy are growing on the Shia side - and that's 60 per cent of the people."

The Sunni resistance is, however, a different story. "I was there in Fallujah earlier this year. It doesn't look like Iraq; it looks like Taliban Afghanistan. I didn't see a woman's face the whole time I was there. They are all hidden behind those dehumanising shrouds." The resistance fighters he met there believed in either Sunni supremacy or endless jihad. "It wasn't surprising. You only have to look at who they are killing to find out their philosophy. They don't want democracy and peaceful co-existence. If there was any way to negotiate with them, I'd support it. But how can you talk people like this down from their ledge? What can you offer them?"

Yasser then offers two crucial facts. First, there hasn't been a single Shia suicide bomber in Iraq so far. That tells you something about who is trying to destroy security and why. Second, there have been just three weeks this year when there were no suicide bombs in Iraq. They were the three weeks the US forces had Fallujah surrounded. Doesn't that suggest it is the base of the Sunni resistance? Doesn't that suggest it is right to deprive them of their base by force if necessary?

And yet, and yet ... I backed this war because I believed most Iraqis would rather take their chances with an American occupation for a while than with Saddam and his sons forever. (This turned out to be right, unless you think that every Iraqi opinion poll has been mysteriously and inexplicably wrong). This makes it essential to keep siding with a majority of Iraqis on these basic issues. So do Iraqis want US troops to go into the Sunni stronghold now or not? Yasser suspects so, but the opinion polls aren't clear on this point. They show that Iraqis desperately want nationwide elections - something which cannot happen if Fallujah remains in anti-democratic hands. Yet they also show that most Iraqis want the coalition troops out of Iraq now, so how can they want them to extend their mission to a new and enraged city?

In the absence of a clear Iraqi majority to side with, it is tempting to break the rules of the Columnists' Trade Union and confess uncertainty. I cannot see any way to hold an election unless Fallujah is reclaimed; Zarqawi is not going to agree to set up polling booths any time soon. Yet it is possible that crashing into Fallujah will enrage Sunnis across Iraq and fuel dozens of other smaller insurgencies. We just don't know. The incursion into Fallujah is - in truth - a massive, bloody risk. So how do I tell Abdul that his grandparents might be about to die for a gamble?

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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