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Eyewitness Fallujah

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 19 December 2004

Cameraman Tim Lambon spent three weeks embedded with the US marines in Fallujah. He tells all here.

In November 2004, along with International Editor Lindsey Hilsum, he spent three weeks embedded with a unit attached to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force as it took part in the assault on Fallujah.

A former soldier, Tim filmed and edited a series of powerful reports for Channel 4 News documenting one of the most controversial, and dangerous, military operations of recent times.

His experiences with the marines offers a rare insight into the way America fights its wars.

What was your unit?

The unit was an armoured assault vehicle unit. They were armoured personnel carriers, specifically designed to take marines from ship to shore and not actually go much further into the hinterland but of course now they find themselves nearly two years later way up into the Sunni Triangle in the middle of Iraq. These vehicles have been equipped and re-equipped and maintained but they are essentially amphibious vehicles. They were used by the marines as their main lift force, in other words, they would take up to 20 armed marines in the back, who are essentially infantry soldiers, and move them into a position for the start of a fight where they would either dismount and move on either side of the vehicle and the vehicle would then supply heavy fire support with its turret gun or they would stay in the vehicle as the vehicle proceeded through a fire area.

Did your unit have specific mission objectives?

Yes. The 1st Platoon of 2nd Tracks, which is what we were with, was assigned to India Company of the 1st Batallion of the 5th Marines. India Company had a specific sector of Fallujah up in the north initially which they had certain objectives which they had to achieve within a certain time frame. So, having breached their start line, which was the railway line which runs east-west at the north of the city, they crossed that railway line having actually breached it in two places at night, in the dark, and using their night vision capabilities, then took a small part, probably about two blocks worth - of two city blocks - of Fallujah, and held that until the morning light and then started pushing forward. The way they would push forward, they would select an area that would basically have a east-west running street and they would be facing south, taking two or three lines of advance, which would be streets going down, and they would then proceed down that, clearing houses on either side until they had secured that block and they would stay in that block for that night and the next day they would push on further down.

Going into each room of each house...?

Going into each room of each house. A lot of the time the houses were severely damaged in that process because one of the cardinal rules of the American occupation of Iraq is called "force protection". The whole idea is that you limit the number of casualties that you take and the number of casualties that you make is immaterial.

When did people start shooting at you?

There was return fire right from the very first morning. I don't think there was a single shot fired in reply on the actual entrance to Fallujah, there was a lot of firing laid down but I heard very little coming back in those initial hours of darkness. The next morning there were definitely insurgents operating in areas that had not been cleared. We went up onto a rooftop and what the Americans were doing was bringing in Cobra helicopters, which are relatively armoured but you don't want to be sitting in a helicopter when there are pieces of lead in the air, you want to get as far away as possible.

But they would use these helicopters to draw the fire with - it's called "drawing fire". In other words, they would fly them as if they were going to fly over a piece of unoccupied Fallujah and of course at it started approaching the insurgents could not help themselves but want to open fire on this thing, hoping they would bring it down with their AK-47's. By doing that of course they give away their positions which spotters on the tops of the buildings were looking for - the puffs of smoke, the flames from the ends of their rifles etc. - and they would then either send out artillery, mortars or get the helicopters themselves to launch missiles at these particular places.

How did the marines view their enemy?

The marines had been in Iraq now since the very beginning. For some this was the second tour - they called this the "second war", they called the "first war" the actual invasion in 2003. Their attitude towards the Iraqis has not changed in this embed, I'm sure that it has changed since the beginning when they were told initially that the Iraqis were going to be welcoming them and now they've found that the Iraqis are in fact just trying to blow them up. So, they now dehumanise the Iraqis, in a way that they don't recognise them as people or if they do recognise them as people, they are people who are other than themselves.

They call the insurgents "Hajji's" and basically they treat them like any soldier has to treat the enemy, which is, if you don't kill him first, he's going to kill you, which as a former soldier, is a reasonably healthy way to look at life. However, as a former soldier who's now a journalist, I also understand the Iraqi side and know how the Iraqis live and think. I do not empathise with the insurgents whatsoever, because I think that what they do is pretty wrong, but at the same time they are in a struggle against what they see as occupation forces in their country and they're giving their best stick.

What's your opinion of who the insurgents are?

I think there is a mixture of all of those. I think there's a normal distribution curve of people involved in the insurgency. Certainly in Fallujah. I think you had a lot of ex-Baathists, a lot of Sunnis who felt disempowered and disinherited by the invasion, after Saddam Hussein's regime had been removed. If there had been foreign elements a lot of those had left. Certainly of the bodies of insurgents we found none of them had foreign id's on them although you continually heard rumours "ah we found Chechens here, we found Syrians there, Yemeni's in another place" - I never saw any of those people and I tend to suspect that information was somewhat tenuous. I'm sure that there were foreigners - there were definitely people from other places, certainly other cities like Ramadi, which is just next to Fallujah. I saw the bodies of five fighters who had Ramadi identification on them so there were people who feel themselves to be patriots as you say who are fighting against what they see as an illegal occupation of their country. There are Wahhabi jihad warriors, people who believe they are fighting for the re-establishment of the Caliphate or the ummah. There are all sorts of people in between, from bandits to hardened fanatics, basically.

What was your unit told about who the enemy were?

I've not particularly myself met any of these individuals but other journalists have gone and got a breakdown of who controlled what parts and who the leaders were and all that kind of stuff. As far as the marines were concerned, they don't need to know who the leader is - all they have to do on the ground is either kill or capture them and the bottom line is to basically free the city up from the scourge of the insurgents, that's how they see it. So that's what they did, they just went in there and took these people.

As a former soldier, I feel that their way of prosecuting this thing was not the most intelligent way. To my mind, the most intelligent way is to capture as many alive as possible. Now I know that that is very difficult when people are hell bent on becoming martyrs and do not mind being suicide targets, so it's difficult to do that but if you can you should capture every single one alive that you can because there's information, and once you have information then you start to get further down the road of freeing up the whole situation.

What was their (the marines) policy then?

The rules of engagement in this particular situation had been changed. Whereas previously the rules of engagement had been - 'you had to see a weapon, there had to be a clear intention to harm coalition forces personnel' - now the rules of engagement had been changed. If you had reason to suspect that an individual may at some stage be involved in harming coalition forces, you could take him out and use whatever force is necessary. And with an M-16 there is only one kind of force and it makes big holes in you.

How many civilians were left in the city ?

Extremely few civilians were left in the city. I think that the government and the US forces were right when they said that the city was deserted. It was pretty much deserted. Those families that were there, and I saw less then 20 individuals all together, including the children and their parents and whatever, in the time that we spent in Fallujah during that operation. They were I think small anomalies and as to the number of insurgents killed - and they claimed that they killed between 1200 and 1600 insurgents - I think that that is a huge over-estimation of the number of people killed.

Also, there was nothing to say who is an insurgent and who is not, because I think that a large number of families had left at least one male member of the family or a servant in houses that had valuables and things like that, to stop any looting. Now those individuals first of all were male, mostly of military age and thirdly, if they were found by the marines, if they were found in circumstances in which the marines thought they might be a threat, they'd just be killed. If they were to walk out on the street in the middle of a firefight they were going to get killed and there were situations where I'm sure people were killed mistakenly or because the marines could not differentiate between them and insurgents.

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