Attacks on Cities
"When we identify positively an enemy target, we're going to go ahead and take it out with every means we have available. I like to remember what Viscount Slim said during the Burma campaign. He said, "Use a sledgehammer to crush a walnut." And that's exactly what we will do. We will use force, overwhelming combat power when it's necessary."
– US Major General Charles H. Swannack Jr. 
The Coalition has used overwhelming military force to attack several Iraqi cities, on grounds that they were "insurgent strongholds." These offensives, using heavy air and land bombardment, culminate in massive armored assaults. They have displaced hundreds of thousands of people, caused large civilian casualties and destroyed much of the urban areas.
The offensives against Falluja in April and November 2004 caused a great outcry. The Coalition has also assaulted Najaf (April and August 2004), Tal Afar (September 2004 and September 2005), Samarra (October 2004, September 2005 and March 2006), al-Qaim (May and November 2005), Haditha (October 2005), Ramadi (October 2005 and June-July 2006) and Baqubah (January 2007). These military operations have harmed more than two million people and deepened Iraqi rage at the occupation.  Such attacks continue, especially in Anbar and Diyala provinces,  even though they repeatedly violate the Geneva Conventions.
Sealed-off Cities and Heavy Curfews
As prelude to the attacks, Coalition forces often surround the targeted area with sandbags, concrete slabs, earthen barricades, and razor wire, turning cities into prison camps. These preliminary operations deploy thousands of troops, with helicopters and armored construction vehicles. They close highways and streets, set up roadblocks and checkpoints. In Tal Afar, attacking forces built an 8-foot high, 12-mile long dirt wall that ringed the entire city. 
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. Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Sassaman described the approach quite bluntly in the early months of the occupation: "With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them." 
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. 
In Falluja, beginning immediately before the November 2004 siege, US forces imposed a harsh curfew, including restriction of movement within the city of all men under 45 years of age.  Similar curfews were imposed on Ramadi, Tal Afar and other cities. The UN reported that road closings and curfews in Ramadi raised prices and created a shortage of basic supplies in early July 2006, before attacks on the city began.  At Abu Hishma , US forces locked down the village for 15 hours a day, preventing residents from going to the mosque for prayers and badly disrupting many families' livelihoods.  Coalition forces have routinely opened fire on any person or vehicle not in conformity with curfew orders.
Forced Evacuation and Those Who Remain
In preparation for the offensives, the US and its allies issue warnings to city residents, urging them to leave their homes and abandon the urban area. Most of the people then flee. The Coalition argues that displacement lessens civilian casualties during the heavy bombardment and fighting, but displacement also creates an excuse for unrestrained military operations – on grounds that all those remaining are enemy fighters or supporters. Free-fire zones within the target area are thought to be justified. 
In Tal-Afar, US forces played messages over loudspeakers warning residents to evacuate, while starting a demonstration bombing of the Sarai neighborhood. Most of the population (80 percent according to Jon Brain, the BBC 's correspondent in Baghdad ) eventually fled to escape the impending fighting. The Coalition has also used air-dropped leaflets to warn city residents of impending attacks. 
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. Eventually the Red Crescent, the UN or relief organizations set up camps. In Falluja, a city of about 300,000, over 216,000 displaced persons had to seek shelter in overcrowded camps during the winter months, inadequately supplied with food, water, and medical care.  An estimated 100,000 fled al-Qaim, a city of 150,000, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS). In Ramadi, about 70 percent of the city's 400,000 people left in advance of the US onslaught.  These moments mark the beginning of Iraq 's massive displacement crisis.
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
The Coalition has repeatedly denied water to residents of cities under siege, including Falluja, Tal Afar and Samarra , affecting up to 750,000 civilians.  Many families have only limited emergency water storage and cannot survive long once the central supply has been cut. 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 September 2004, the US "turned off" water supplies to Tal Afar "for at least three days," according to the Washington Post .  In October 2004, the Independent reported that "US-led forces cut off power and water" in Samarra .  And in November 2004, the UN reported a similar cut-off of vital necessities in Falluja, "directly affecting civilians (approximately 50,000 people then remaining inside [the city]) for whom water is a basic need and a fundamental human right." Supplies of necessities were unavailable within Falluja for many days and were withheld by the Coalition even from the displaced citizens in camps outside, again according to the UN.  The UN reported that in early July 2006, US forces imposed a "total blockade" of Rutba "for approximately four days" followed by subsequent blockades "intermittently." 
These siege tactics seek to punish the inhabitants for their presumed sympathy with the insurgents, force those remaining to leave the city, and press them to turn over insurgent fighters.  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.
In his annual report to the Human Rights Commission in March 2005, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, denounced such practices.  Ziegler later said in a press conference that the "Coalition's occupying forces are using hunger and deprivation of water as a weapon of war against the civilian population," calling this "a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law." 
Confinement of Journalists and Blockage of Media Coverage
Prior to the major assaults, Coalition commanders have prevented journalists from entering the targeted cities. 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.
Preceding US military operations in Najaf in August 2004, Iraqi police encircled a hotel where journalists were staying, ordering them to leave the city and threatening to arrest all those who did not comply with the order.  While claiming that the ban was based on concerns for the safety of the journalists, police officers said they would confiscate all cell phones and cameras.  In Falluja, the US military banned all non-embedded journalists from the city. Reports have mentioned that journalists and camera crews were arrested and their equipment confiscated, without explanation, before being released later without charges. 
Reporters Without Borders, referring to Najaf, condemned "the totally unacceptable imposition of an information blackout" and insisted that "the presence of journalists on the spot is indispensable, as the worst atrocities are always committed in the absence of witnesses." 
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.
The Washington Post reported that in Falluja, an "official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described 12 hours of overnight strikes by American helicopters, fighter-bombers, field artillery and tanks as â€˜shaping operations.' Military commanders use the term as shorthand for battlefield preparation, combat operations specifically intended to remove enemy strong points in advance of an assault."  In the second assault on Falluja, the air strikes began on October 15, the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and continued for three weeks prior to the assault of November 7. In Najaf, US Marines bombarded the cemetery near the famous Imam Ali Shrine as well as much of the city center , in a massive attack backed by aircraft and tanks. In Ramadi , US forces carried out intensive bombardment, targeting the city's power stations, water treatment facilities, and water pipes, leaving many destroyed houses and no civilian services functioning. 
US military bombardment has destroyed large areas of the cities. Reports have confirmed that whole neighborhoods have been leveled and elsewhere just hulks of buildings stand. "Those who have witnessed US aircraft firing missiles into packed tenements in Sadr City , and have seen the resulting carnage, treat claims of â€˜precision strikes' â€¦ with deep skepticism" commented the London-based Independent newspaper. 
Air strikes and artillery bombardment are typically indiscriminate. According to an Iraq Body Count study on different types of weapons, aircraft attacks have been responsible for the largest proportion of children killed.  In addition to massive bombardment with high explosives, there is clear evidence of the use of indiscriminate and especially injurious weapons, particularly incendiaries, in these ferociously violent campaigns. 
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.
Using night goggles and special high-power scopes, snipers shoot at any moving object, which might be a civilian going out in desperate search for food or water, seeking medical care, escaping a collapsing building, or trying to leave the city. During the siege of Falluja in April 2004, the Guardian reported that US snipers shot an ambulance, an elderly woman carrying a white flag, and an aid worker delivering medical supplies on foot.  The UN reported that, in August 2006, snipers in Ramadi shot thirteen civilians who had breached the curfew, killing six and injuring seven in just one district of the city. 
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. In Falluja , US troops "destroyed a civilian hospital in a massive air raid, captured the main hospital and prohibited the use of ambulances. " Medical personnel were arrested and the patients removed.  Similarly, as the US prepared to launch a major assault on Najaf, Al-Hakeem Hospital was "taken over as a coalition military base, off limits to civilians." 
In the summer of 2006, during an offensive against Ramadi, Coalition forces captured the city's General Hospital , endangering the sick and rendering health care impossible.  According to the UN, troops seized the city's Specialized Hospital on July 5 and held it more than a week until July 13, after which time they withdrew but set up a patrol outside.  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. 
Coalition forces have blocked access to humanitarian and medical relief convoys trying to enter cities, obstructing the work of humanitarian agencies trying to assess needs, deliver relief supplies and bring urgent assistance to the population.  In Samarra , in March 2006, US troops turned back the Iraqi Red Crescent Committee's aid convoys, leaving hundreds of families, including children, without medical assistance and basic necessities. 
Najaf's top health official Falah Al-Mahani reported that the attack was causing "a real catastrophe" for local health services. "Ambulances are prevented from reaching the injured people," he said. "Our staff is not able to reach the hospitals. We are paralyzed."  As a result, a far higher proportion of injured civilians have died or suffered serious bodily damage than if medical care had been available, contributing to the soaring Iraq mortality rate.
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. A 2005 report by UNAMI concluded: "The United Nations has been unable to obtain accurate figures concerning civilian losses following such operations but reports received from civil society organizations, medical sources and other monitors indicate that they are significant and include women and children." 
During the first week of the assault on Falluja in April 2004, the city General Hospital 's Director Rafie al-Issawi reported that over 600 people had died, most of them women, children and the elderly.  In Najaf too, "the total number killed was 570 with 785 injured. These statistics were taken from local hospitals and didn't include bodies buried in homes or elsewhere during the fighting."  Using accounts from tribal leaders, medical personnel and local witnesses, the Washington Post calculated that "Operation Steel Curtain," a US offensive in November 2005, included bombings that killed 97 civilians in Husaybah, 80 to 90 in al-Qaim, 18 children in Ramadi, and many other civilians in additional cities and villages. 
Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have expressed concern at the growing number of civilian casualties due to extremely violent US counter-insurgency operations.  The rising use of air strikes, which grew five-fold in 2005, has greatly increased the likelihood of civilian deaths in the battles over urban areas. 
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. 
In Falluja, Operation Phantom Fury left the city in ruins, as a "ghost town." The Study Center for Human Rights and Democracy, a Falluja-based non-governmental organization, reports that the offensive destroyed an estimated 70 percent of the buildings, homes and shops.  Speaking in a press conference about the scale of destruction in Najaf, Minister of State Qassim Daoud said: "It is horrible and it is difficult to know where to start." Officials in Najaf told IRIN , that "a total of 72 shops, 50 hotels, 90 homes, three schools and dozens of cars were destroyed in the fighting."  They said "there has also been massive destruction of the historic old part of the city, some of it impossible to repair." 
In the Ramadi operation of 2006, "instead of continuing to fight for the downtown, or rebuild it," the New York Times reported, Coalition forces "are going to get rid of it, or at least a very large part of it."  US Department of Defense newspaper Stars and Stripes reports that at least eight blocks of buildings were razed. "We're used to taking down walls, doors and windows, but eight city blocks is something new to us,"  admitted Marine 1st Lieutenant Ben Klay who took part in the demolition work in Ramadi.
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. This appears to be an effort to make the sieges more palatable to Iraqi and international opinion. Officially, US troops only "back-up" Iraqi forces or the two are said to carry out operations jointly. Observers say, though, that the US always takes the lead.
In fact, Iraqi government authorities have often been critical of the operations and condemned the conduct of US forces. After a week of heavy fighting in August 2004, Iraq 's Interim Deputy President Ibrahim Al-Jaafari "call[ed] for multinational forces to leave Najaf and for only Iraqi forces to remain there." Deputy Governor of Najaf, Jawdat Kadhim Najam al-Quraishi, followed by 16 of the 30 members of the Najaf Provincial Council, resigned in protest against the assault. 
In the case of Falluja, feelings in Iraq ran high and several members of the Iraq Governing Council criticized the attacks and threatened to resign if the US commanders did not halt the operation. Adnan Pachachi, a leading member of the IGC qualified the operation "as illegal and totally unacceptable."  And Ghazi Yawar, another prominent member said: "How can a superpower like the United States put itself in a state of war with a small city like Falluja?" 
In a statement on government television in August 2006, Iraq 's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sharply criticized US-Iraqi raids on Baghdad 's Sadr City , saying that such operations "violate the rights of citizens." "This operation used weapons that are unreasonable to detain someone – like using planes," he said, before apologizing to the Iraqi people. He promised "this won't happen again." 
These public statements signal serious differences between even hand-picked Iraqi politicians and US military commanders and they show how little control the sovereign and elected Iraqi government has over these offensives. Iraqi official statements have not stopped the US military from continuing these campaigns, even in Baghdad itself.
Prior to the November 2004 attack on Falluja, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan wrote to President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, expressing his "particular concern about the safety and protection of civilians." He continued: "Fighting is likely to take place mostly in densely populated urban areas, with an obvious risk of civilian casualties..."  Shortly afterwards, while the Falluja siege was still going on, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour called for an investigation into possible war crimes.  The United States and its partners ignored these warnings about the risk to civilians and war crimes. They continued with the attack.
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.
 The pre-attack population of the named cities comes to about two million. This does not include other urban targets, notably the very populous Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad that has sustained several attacks, including a major operation in August-September 2004.
 According to the US Army Field Manual FM 6-20, a free-fire zone is " a specific designated area into which any weapon system may fire without additional coordination with the establishing headquarters." The term has generally been expanded to include combat zone in which anyone unidentified is considered an enemy combatant, or areas in which soldiers can shoot at anyone moving around after curfew, without first making sure that they are hostile.
As per November 22, 2004 , " The water system remains turned off, and PDS distribution has not resumed in either Falluja or for IDPs in the area." United Nations, Emergency Working Group – Falluja Crisis , "Update Note" ( November 22, 2004 )
"â€˜We have supplies and people who want to help. People are dying due to the shortage of medical materials and other needing food and water, but you have to watch them die because US troops do not let you go in,' [spokesman for the Iraq Red Crescent Society (IRCS), Firdoos ] al-Abadi added."