Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Urbicide in Iraq: Another Way to Say Genocide

First an excerpt from one of my previous essays:

Arguably the best definition of genocide is that of Raphael Lemkin (1944, p. 79). The origins of the term genocide come from the Greek root genos (meaning "type" - think along the lines of tribe or race) and the Latin word cide (meaning "killing"; Lemkin, 1944; see also Churchill, 1997). Lemkin describes genocide as having “has two phases: destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain, or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and colonization of the area by the oppressor's own nationals." Lemkin states further that, “genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves (even if all individuals within the dissolved group physically survive). The objectives of such a plan would be a disintegration of political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed at the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed at individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group" (p. 79). Genocide could thus be seen to include a wide array of actions that contribute to the annihilation of a target group, including destruction of the target group’s crops (e.g., via fire or chemical agents), destruction of the target group’s infrastructure, the mass murder of women of child-bearing age and children, forced sterilization of members of the group, indoctrination into the dominant group’s cultural practices at the expense of the target group’s own traditions, forbidding the target group from engaging in its traditional religious and cultural practices, etc. (Churchill, 1997, 2003, 2004; Sartre, 1974). From the above definition, a number of events can be labeled genocide, including Nazi Germany’s Holocaust, the annihilation of numerous indigenous societies in the Americas by European colonialists and later the US government, the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians, the mass killings of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda, the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, and the US government’s combination of wars and sanctions aimed at the Iraqi population, to name but a few (Chomsky, 2004; Churchill, 1997, 2003, 2004; Friedberg, 2000; Sartre, 1974; Stannard, 1992).

Next let's check what Claudia Card has to say regarding "social death":
Specific to genocide is the harm inflicted on its victims' social vitality. It is not just that one's group membership is the occasion for harms that are definable independently of one's identity as a member of the group. When a group with its own cultural identity is destroyed, its survivors lose their cultural heritage and may even lose their intergenerational connections. To use Orlando Patterson's terminology, in that event, they may become "socially dead" and their descendants "natally alienated," no longer able to pass along and build upon traditions, cultural developments (including languages) and projects of earlier generations (1982, 5-9). The harm of social death is not necessarily less extreme than that of physical death. Social death can even aggravate physical death by making it indecent, removing all respectful and caring ritual, social connections, and social contexts that are capable of making dying bearable and even of making one's death meaningful. IN my view, the special evil in genocide lies in its infliction not just of physical death (when it does that) but of social death, producing a consequent meaninglessness of one's life and even of its termination.
Now let's check out a definition of urbicide, and the scene in Baqubah, Iraq:

The currently ongoing "pacification" of Baqubah, a city with 300,000 inhabitants, by some 10,000 U.S. troops is using the same methods as documented in the NGO report with regard to Fallujah and a dozen other Iraqi cities. From the executive summary (pdf):

US Coalition forces have attacked and destroyed a number of important Iraqi cities, on grounds that they were “insurgent strongholds.” The attacks have resulted in the massive displacement of people, large civilian casualties, and colossal destruction of the urban physical infrastructure. In addition to Falluja, there have been assaults on a dozen other cities including al-Qaim, Tal Afar, Samarra, Haditha, and Ramadi. The attacks include intensive air and ground bombardment and cutting-off electricity, water, food and medicines. The attacks have left hundreds of thousands of people homeless and in displacement camps.

This tactic is "urbicide." The destruction of the urban fabric of a city as a cultural and social entity. The deeper intend of urbicide is to split the population into fractions. The original definition, first used in relation to Bosnia:

Urbicide is the destruction of urban fabric insofar as it comprises the conditions of possibility of urbanity. Urbanity is characterised by an agonistic heterogeneity in which identity is constituted in relation to difference. Urbicide, in destroying the conditions of possibility of urbanity denies such heterogeneity. This denial is accomplished by transforming agonism into antagonism and thus giving the impression of having dissipated the relationship of identity to difference.

In 2001/2002 urbicide has been heavily used in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Armored Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer as strategic weapons destroyed major city centers and infrastructure in Jenin, Nablus, Hebron and Ramallah. This approach has transfered to the U.S. military in Iraq.

The local resistance against the occupation is labled "Al-Qaida" or "terrorists" to justify its suppression and the elimination of the city as "terrorist infrastructure."

Today's New York Times gives a glimpse into how this is happening now in Baqubah:

In the first hours of the American military assault, after midnight early Monday, helicopters flew two teams of American troops and a platoon of Iraqi scouts so they could block the southern escape routes from the city. Stryker armored vehicles moved along the western outskirts of Baquba and then down a main north-south route that cuts through the center of the city.

By the time dawn broke on Tuesday, the insurgent sanctuary in western Baquba had been cordoned off. Then, the American forces established footholds on the periphery of the section and slowly pressed in.
The problem of collaring the Qaeda fighters is challenging in several respects. Unlike Falluja, where most of the population fled in advance of the battle, thousands of civilians remain in the western section of the city.
[T]he Americans intend to take fingerprints and other biometric data from every resident who seems to be a potential fighter after they and Iraqi forces have gained control of the western side of the city.
This American counterinsurgency operation has some of the firepower associated with conventional war. American forces have already fired more than 20 satellite-guided rockets into western Baquba. Apache helicopters have attacked enemy fighters.

Warplanes have also dropped satellite-guided bombs on suspected roadside bombs and a weapons cache, which produced spectacular secondary explosions after it was struck. M1 tanks have maneuvered through the narrow city lanes. The Americans have responded to insurgent attacks with mortar fire.

(note: the NYT says in Fallujah "most of the population fled." Fact is 50.000 stayed while the rest camped in the desert under unbearable circumstances.)

Instead of Caterpillars, the U.S. is using bombs, rockets and tanks.

Part 6 of the NGOs explains the major steps taken in Fallujah and elsewhere which are now applied on Baqubah. Excerpts (with sources and footnotes omitted):

Sealed-off Cities and Heavy Curfews
Coalition troops seize control of all movement into and out of the cities, including goods and supplies, water, food, medicines and emergency assistance of all kinds. This “sealing off” strategy seeks to isolate insurgents and show ordinary civilians the heavy cost of not cooperating.
Coalition forces subject residents to intensive screening at check points, where they are required to present special identification cards. At the checkpoints, troops arrest and detain some Iraqis (often arbitrarily), while routinely denying access to others on grounds that their documents are not in order. “We are like birds in a cage,” said a resident of Abu Hishma to the New York Times, complaining of the humiliation endured.

Forced Evacuation and Those Who Remain
Among those who flee, the most fortunate are able to seek refuge with out-of-town relatives, but many flee into the countryside where they face extremely difficult conditions, including shortages of food and water.
While many leave the cities at the time of warnings, significant numbers remain – an estimated 50,000 in Falluja and more than 100,000 in Ramadi. Coalition forces assume that they are insurgents or sympathizers. But those staying behind have included large numbers of non-combatant civilians – unable or unwilling to abandon their homes, including children, the sick, the elderly, and those fearful of a worse fate that might await them beyond the familiar protection of their city.

Cutting Off Water, Food and Electricity
Along with water, the Coalition has cut off electricity (which may power pumps and local wells). They also have cut off food and medical supplies, creating a “state of siege” and imposing a humanitarian crisis on the entire remaining urban population.
In some cases, the Coalition has used the siege openly as a bargaining tool. In Ramadi, US and Iraqi forces reportedly told residents that they would not get water, electricity, telephones and other services back unless they would hand over “the terrorists.” According to Lieutenant Colonel Hassan al-Medan, the Iraqi spokesperson for the operation in Najaf, “if we allow the entrance of food and medicines to the city we are just feeding the insurgents” – this in spite of thousands of civilians still within the area.

Confinement of Journalists and Blockage of Media Coverage

All media workers not “embedded” with US forces have been banned for the duration of the battle and usually a long time afterwards. Sometimes, even embedded media have been refused access. This gives the Coalition almost complete control over international public perceptions of what is happening on the battlefield.

Massive Bombardment

Coalition forces have inflicted prolonged and intense air and ground bombardment on these cities, destroying thousands of homes, shops, mosques, clinics and schools, and – inevitably – killing and injuring many civilians. The strategy of indiscriminate and massive bombardment, in advance of ground offensives, has reduced the number of Coalition casualties, at a heavy cost in life and injury to the remaining Iraqi city residents.

Urban Assault, Snipers and Violent Searches

After extensive bombardment, Coalition armed forces storm into the cities with columns of tanks and other armored vehicles. Heavy tank fire blasts into many structures, widening the urban desolation.

Troops seize remaining buildings and carry out house searches in those structures still standing. The soldiers often use violent methods to enter houses, such as setting off explosives or knocking down part of the front wall with a military vehicle.

The US military has increasingly relied on snipers to back-up infantry patrols. Commanders portray snipers as a precision method to avoid civilian casualties, but in fact sniper teams often fire at anyone moving in the streets, in gardens or even inside of buildings. Everyone is treated in the besieged cities as an enemy.

Attacks on Medical Facilities and Prevention of Humanitarian Assistance

Coalition troops have targeted medical facilities during urban offensives, and repeatedly destroyed and confiscated ambulances, making emergency care nearly impossible.
Further UN reports have spoken of Coalition snipers stationed on the roof of the Ramadi General Hospital, troops quartered in the hospital garden, and fearful residents avoiding the hospital altogether. In Tal Afar, the UN reported that the city hospital had been “occupied” by Coalition forces for six months.

Civilian Casualties

US-led military operations in populated areas have caused scores of civilian deaths and injuries. People have been killed by ordnance explosions, collapsed buildings, fires, sniper shots and many other violent causes. While Coalition forces claim that most of those killed in attacks are men of military-age, reliable reports suggest that many, if not most, of the victims in these operations have been non-combatants.

Massive Destruction
Heavy bombardment has caused great destruction in the cities under attack, including historical and religious sites, as well as water, electricity and sewage systems. US-led forces have bombed and even bulldozed numerous buildings, either as part of offensives or as retaliation against civilians who do not give information about insurgents.
With power, water and sewage systems dysfunctional and most buildings in ruins, many of these cities will remain only marginally habitable for a long time to come, in spite of announced (but largely un-implemented) reconstruction programs.

“Joint” Military Operations and Criticism by Iraqi Authorities

Increasingly, US commanders have portrayed military operations against Iraqi cities as joint operations between US and Iraqi forces.
In fact, Iraqi government authorities have often been critical of the operations and condemned the conduct of US forces.


International law sets clear standards for the conduct of military operations. The Geneva Conventions prohibit attacks which do not clearly distinguish between military targets and civilians, or have a disproportionate impact on civilians. Coalition military operations have clearly violated these laws, with massive displacement of populations, indiscriminate killings of civilians, and large-scale destruction of habitation and urban infrastructure, including historic buildings and religious sites. Coalition forces have violated further provisions of the Conventions by deliberately targeting hospitals, stopping emergency medical care and blocking the delivery of humanitarian aid. In further violation of the prohibition of “siege tactics,” they have deprived civilians of food, water, electricity, medical supplies and vital services. Such practices have inflicted collective punishment on Iraqis. Taken together they represent a grave violation of international humanitarian law.

As usual the U.S. media is not covering the obvious law-breaking characteristics of the tactics used by U.S. forces.

Basically, what makes urbicide genocidal is that it destroys whole patterns of existence - not only in terms of actual blood spilled (although that turns out to be quite substantial), but also economic and social patterns that formed the cornerstone of existence for the urban denizens of Baqubah (and Fallujah); to an extent what Claudia Card would call social death. Likely, among the rulers of the US empire, this was the plan all along. Indeed, the contention that not only is there a culture of atrocity among the occupiers in Iraq, but also embedded in the American Zeitgeist is quite reasonable given the sheer horrific scope of available evidence.

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