By Naureen Shah, Director of National Security and Human Rights
Ever since President-elect Trump nominated Gen. James Mattis to be the next Defense Secretary, I have been reflecting on the lessons learned and forgotten from the 2003 Iraq war.
Gen. Mattis played a significant role in the Iraq war. And if he is confirmed, under him the U.S. could send thousands more U.S. servicemembers to Iraq (there are at least 5,200 troops there now).
I was nineteen when the drumbeat for the war began. It’s hard to believe now, but the conventional wisdom at the time was that it would be a quick war. It began with so-called Shock and Awe bombings, which the media showed off like fireworks. Though many protested, my college classmates — and many in the country — believed this clean war would soon be over.
It would be years before many in the U.S. understood the full scope of the war’s devastation — atrocities and horrors and that the Senate Armed Services Committee, when it conducts a hearing this week on Gen. Mattis’ nomination, should not shirk from reviewing. Indeed, it should seek commitments from Gen. Mattis about the orders he would give — or refuse to carry out — in any conflict, in Iraq and elsewhere.
There is so much recent history that we cannot let be repeated. Thousands of civilians and military personnel were killed and injured as a result of the military intervention — either during the war or the subsequent occupation — by U.S.-led coalition forces and armed groups. Thousands of Iraqis were detained, often in unacknowledged centers where many were tortured and ill-treated, and some died as a result. U.S.-led coalition forces collectively punished Iraqis for attacks, deliberately destroying home and crops. Coalition forces killed unarmed Iraqis at public demonstrations and checkpoints.
Here are four examples of the Iraq war’s perilous legacy — ones that Gen. Mattis himself played a role in, and which he should reckon with at this week’s hearing.
1. Civilian Killings During 2004 Sieges of Fallujah
In late March 2004, four U.S. private contractors were killed, burned and mutilated in Fallujah. Then Major-General Mattis was commander of the 1st Marine Division — the Marine ground forces at the time. Reportedly, Bush administration officials ordered the Marine commanders to “Go in and clobber people,” as one officer put it.
Marines sealed off the city and launched military operations to seek the arrest of those responsible. Fighting erupted, and civilians were among those killed.
There were numerous allegations against U.S. forces, including indiscriminate attacks. The UN Special Rapporteur on Health reported allegations that U.S. forces blocked civilians from entering Fallujah’s main hospital, blocked medical staff from working at hospitals, occupied hospitals and fired upon ambulances. “Civilians continue to pay the ultimate price,” Amnesty International stated at the time.
2. U.S. Use of White Phosphorous
The U.S. military used white phosphorous in its attacks on armed groups in Fallujah. Although it initially denied reports by independent journalists that it had, a senior U.S. official eventually admitted it, saying white phosphorous was for marking targets and screening.
White phosphorus is an incendiary substance that burns at extremely high temperatures upon exposure to air. It can cause horrific injuries, burning deep into the muscle and bone. It is possible that some of it will only partially burn and could then reignite weeks after being deployed.
White phosphorus is most often used to create a dense smoke screen that can obscure the movement of troops from enemy forces, and to mark targets for further attack. While its use for such purposes is not prohibited, extreme caution is warranted whenever it is deployed. It should never be used in the vicinity of civilians. It should not be used for anti-personnel purposes.
In October 2016, Amnesty International reported receiving credible evidence that white phosphorous was used in an area near Mosul.
At his confirmation hearing, senators should ask Gen. Mattis about his knowledge of the use of white phosphorous in Fallujah or in other areas during the Iraq war, as well as any failure to keep records regarding its use. Gen. Mattis should commit to taking steps in any future conflict to ensure white phosphorous is never used in the vicinity of civilians.
3. Depleted Uranium and Toxic Wounds of War
One of the most under-reported aspects of the Iraq war is the devastating impact of toxic exposures, both on the people living in Iraq and the Americans who served there. The military sieges of Fallujah included not just use of white phosphorous but depleted uranium, according to U.S. government records released and analyzed by the Dutch group Pax.
Following the sieges of Fallujah, the civilian population suffered “the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied,” according to the author of one door-to-door survey of Fallujah homes. Hundreds of Iraqis were born with birth defects, such as being born with one eye, disfiguring deformities and complex nervous system problems. According to some reports, the rate of birth defects, infant mortality and cancer in Fallujah are far higher than that reported in Hiroshima following U.S. nuclear bombings.
A 2013 World Health Organization study found “no clear evidence to suggest an unusually high rate of congenital birth defects in Iraq”; however, some experts criticized the study, raising concerns about U.S. and UK political influence and emphasizing its inconsistency with statistics from the Iraqi Ministry of Health.
U.S. veterans of the Iraq war and other wars have also reported serious illness they believe arise from their exposure to depleted uranium, including cancer. “I know veterans who are unexplainably ill and have been refused testing for exposure to depleted uranium,” wrote a veteran who served at a Fallujah hospital during the war.
Amnesty International has raised concerns that depleted uranium ordnance may pose a long-term threat to civilians and the environment. Some studies suggest that depleted uranium dust, which remains in the vicinity of targets struck by depleted uranium weapons, poses a significant health risk if inhaled or ingested. Amnesty International calls on governments to consider refraining from the transfer and use of depleted uranium weapons pending the outcome of investigations on their long-term health effects.
In late 2016, the Defense Department confirmed that it was again using weapons containing depleted uranium in Syria. However, the Defense Department claims no significant health problems are associated with the exposure.
At his confirmation hearing, senators should ask Gen. Mattis about his knowledge of the use of depleted uranium in Fallujah or in other areas, as well as any failure to keep records regarding its use.
4. The 2005 Haditha Killings
There are numerous cases of civilian casualties as a result of actions by all parties to the Iraq war, including deliberate killings. Gen. Mattis oversaw cases against Marines accused in one of the most notorious cases.
In November 2005, a roadside bomb in Haditha, Anbar Province, Iraq, struck a squad of Marines, killing one and seriously injuring at least two others. In the aftermath, squad members were accused of deliberately killing 24 Iraqi civilians, including women, children and the elderly, in nearby vehicles and homes. The military’s investigations were delayed, but their eventual discoveries were gruesome. Investigators recorded a statement from a 13-year-old named Safah who survived:
She said she played dead to avoid being shot. Her sister Aisha, 3, was shot in the leg and died; her brother Zainab, 5, was killed by a shot to the head. She said she lost five other members of her family in the room, including her mother. ‘[A Marine] fired and killed everybody. The American fired and killed everybody.
Gen. Mattis was the Convening Authority overseeing the cases of eight Marines charged in relation to the killings and failures to investigate them. His role was to ensure a “thorough and impartial investigation” and decide to approve or dismiss criminal charges.
No one was ever convicted of a serious crime in connection with these killings. Because the Marines delayed reporting the killings, by the time an investigation occurred “there were no bodies to examine, no Iraqi witnesses to testify, no damning forensic evidence” — all hampering the later investigation and prosecutions.” Flaws in the investigations and prosecutions were so significant that one government panel member called Haditha a “case study” in how the military should not manage cases of alleged crimes by American servicemembers.
At his confirmation hearing, senators should question Gen. Mattis about the Haditha killings, including what lessons can be learned from this horrific tragedy and the investigations and prosecutions that occurred. Gen. Mattis should also be asked about reform of the military justice system, including proposals to give the power to refer cases to prosecutors, instead of commanders, to address concerns about lack of independence.