Fallujah - when the moral crusaders fell silent

David Edwards and David Cromwell

The cruise-missile liberals' love for the Iraqi people is very much an on-off affair. The same journalists who had nothing to say about the fate of Iraq under "our man in Baghdad", under the bombs of Desert Storm, or under the genocidal sanctions that claimed one million lives, were suddenly overwhelmed with compassion as war loomed last year. But then Iraqi WMDs and links to al-Qaeda were nowhere in sight and apologists for power still had a job to do.

On 10 April it became clear that 600 Iraqis had been killed and 1,700 wounded in Fallujah, many civilians among them. The media that had cursed Saddam Hussein's cruelty and raged at the slaughter in Madrid had nothing to say. There was no outrage that our ally was waging war on city slums with 70-tonne battle tanks, fighter bombers and helicopter gunships.

When we questioned the BBC's reporting, Peter Roberts, a spokesman for the corporation, replied that it was inappropriate to compare the "atrocities in Madrid" with "the fierce fighting in Fallujah". Yet in that "fierce fighting", ten Iraqi insurgents and civilians were killed for every US death.

ITV's Lunchtime News devoted six minutes to the story on 7 April. The focus was on the killing of 12 US marines - losses that were mentioned 11 times. Iraqi deaths - reported as 66 killed, including civilians - were mentioned twice.

Three days later, the Independent reported that the Iraqi toll had reached 600 dead. Nevertheless, the front page showed an Iraqi beating a corpse. A day later, the editors wrote merely: "Let's see some common sense and humility from the US." Reporting 450 dead, the Guardian passed over the pictures of decapitated infants and burned babies shown by al-Jazeera, showing instead marines carrying an injured comrade.

The tone says it all. American "contracted civilians" (in fact mercenaries) had been "horribly butchered" in Fallujah, ITN reported, while Iraqi civilians had been "killed" or "caught in crossfire". The taking of western hostages was "horrific", "one of the dirtiest tactics of war", ITN declared; the US devastation of Fallujah was "heavy fighting". The Observer's David Aaronovitch, sometime "stand up kinda guy" for Iraqi human rights, was unmoved, finding Tony Blair's refusal to condemn US actions in Fallujah only "disappointing".

Western propaganda reflexively demonises official enemies such as Saddam, Muammar Gaddafi, Slobodan Milosevic and Fidel Castro as "new Hitlers". Yet the most appalling feature of Nazi ideology was the notion of "Untermenschen" - racially or socially inferior groups which did not matter except in so far as they were an obstacle to the progress of the "higher races". It could not be clearer from the political and media indifference to our developing world victims that some similar idea remains deeply entrenched in the western psyche.

The world fell apart when 3,000 people died on 11 September 2001. No one blinked an eye when aid agencies warned that even the threat of bombing imperilled 7.5 million starving Afghans, and when US bombing subsequently claimed more than 3,000 civilian lives. In January 2002, the American media analyst Edward Herman reported that the first US combat casualty in Afghanistan had received more coverage in the US media than all the Afghan casualties combined.

In 1979, when killing by the west's Indonesian allies in East Timor was reaching genocidal levels, not one mainstream press article on the crisis appeared in the New York Times or the Washington Post. The US journalist Amy Goodman reports that between them, ABC, NBC and CBS managed one 40-second report, from the day of the invasion in December 1975 up until November 1991.

Most recently, the elected president of Haiti was forced out by armed thugs and US agents. The media shrugged. They are shrugging still as Jean-Bertrand Aristide's supporters are "brutalised, taken away in custody, disappeared, detained and killed by illegal forces" while living "on the brink of starvation

and in absolute poverty", according to the US National Lawyers

Guild. Returning from Haiti, Tom Griffin, an attorney, reports "hundreds of corpses" dumped by morgues, bodies coming in with "plastic bags over their heads and hands tied behind their backs, piles of corpses burning in fields and pigs eating their flesh". Who, in our morally crusading media, gives a damn?

On 11 April, the Sunday Telegraph reported great unease among senior British army commanders in Iraq at the "heavy-handed and disproportionate" military tactics used by US forces, who view Iraqis "as Untermenschen". "They are not concerned about the Iraqi loss of life . . . Their attitude towards the Iraqis is tragic, it's awful." But it is not exceptional. It is the truth, and has always been the truth, of the west's monstrous disregard for the people of Iraq.

David Edwards and David Cromwell are co-editors of Media Lens