WASHINGTON, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- A secret intelligence assessment of the first battle of Fallujah shows the U.S. military believes it lost control over information about what was happening in the town, leading to political pressure that ended its April 2004 offensive with control being handed to Sunni insurgents.
"The outcome of a purely military contest in Fallujah was always a foregone conclusion -- coalition victory," reads the assessment, prepared by analysts at the U.S. Army's National Ground Intelligence Center.
"But Fallujah was not simply a military action, it was a political and informational battle. … The effects of media coverage, enemy information operations, and the fragility of the political environment conspired to force a halt to U.S. military operations," concludes the assessment.
It adds that the decision to order an immediate assault on Fallujah, in response to the televised killing of four contractors from the private military firm Blackwater, effectively prevented the Marine Expeditionary Force charged with retaking the town from carrying out "shaping operations," like clearing civilians from the area, which would have improved their chances of success.
"The very short time allowed for shaping operations before the fight resulted in a battlefield full of civilians," observes the assessment, prepared in March 2006 and classified secret.
A copy was posted on the Web last week by the organization Wikileaks, which aims to provide a secure way whistle-blowers can "reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations" and says it favors government transparency.
Although a spokesman for U.S. Army intelligence declined to comment on the document, United Press International independently confirmed its veracity.
The assessment says a daytime curfew and ban on all public gatherings imposed by Marines in the town was "difficult to enforce" and that insurgents exploited U.S. adherence to the laws of war and sometimes-restrictive rules of engagement. As a result, "non-combatants provided cover for insurgents, restrained (the) employment of combat power, and provided emotional fodder for Arab media to exploit."
The authors say that media were "crucial to building political pressure to halt military operations" from the Iraqi government and the Coalition Provisional Authority, which resulted in a "unilateral cease-fire" by U.S. forces on April 9, after just five days of combat operations.
During the negotiations that followed, top Bush administration officials demanded a solution that would not require the Marines to retake the town, according to the assessment.
"The American National Command Authority pressed for other options besides finishing the clearing of Fallujah," it states. "Given few options," coalition forces on April 30 formally turned over control of the town to the so-called Fallujah brigade -- essentially the same insurgents they had just been fighting.
Crucial to this failure, the authors believe, was the role of the Arabic satellite news channels al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyah.
An al-Jazeera crew was in Fallujah during the first week of April 2004, when the Marines began their assault on the town of 285,000 people.
"They filmed scenes of dead babies from the hospital, presumably killed by coalition airstrikes," complains the assessment. "Comparisons were made to the Palestinian intifada. Children were shown bespattered with blood; mothers were shown screaming and mourning day after day."
The two stations "focused almost exclusively" on the theme that the military was using excessive force, reports the assessment, saying their coverage was "increasingly … shrill in tone," and they both "appeared willing to take even the most baseless claims as fact."
Worse, al-Jazeera crews were the only source of pictures of the conflict, because the town was too dangerous for Western news organizations, which were "forced to pool video shot by Arab cameramen."
"The absence of Western media in Fallujah allowed the insurgents greater control of information coming out of Fallujah," concludes the assessment, because their charges "could not be countered by Western reporters because they did not have access to the battlefield."
As examples it cites the ultimately unsubstantiated allegation that cluster bombs were used by U.S. forces and the "false allegations of up to 600 dead and 1,000 wounded civilians" -- although 600 actually tallies with estimates by the Iraq Body Count, a Web site that tabulates reports of civilian casualties and has been cited by President Bush.
By contrast, the assessment states that, later in 2004, when U.S.-led forces successfully retook Fallujah, they brought with them 91 embedded reporters representing 60 media outlets, including Arabic ones.
"False allegations of non-combatant casualties were made by Arab media in both campaigns, but in the second case embedded Western reporters offered a rebuttal," the authors state.
The assessment added that the coincidence of the Shiite uprising in southern Iraq on April 2 and the publication of pictures of abuse by U.S. forces in Abu Ghraib later that month "further enflamed a politically precarious situation and could not have happened at a worse time."
"Insurgents sometimes get lucky," the authors conclude.
A "nascent and weak" Iraqi government had "offered no political cover for U.S. commanders to finish the operation in a reasonable time period," and "without domestic Iraqi political support, offensive operations were halted."