Group Faults U.S. Tactics Against Civilians in Iraq.
U.S. forces have killed at least 94 civilians in Baghdad since May 1 "in questionable circumstances" but faced investigation in only five incidents, encouraging soldiers to believe they can fire with impunity, a human rights group said in a report released Tuesday.
"Soldiers need to know that they will come under review in legally questionable situations, and without that in their minds it creates an atmosphere where they are quicker to use lethal force," said Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group. "That accountability helps protect civilians.
"At the same time, this over-aggressive behavior and the lack of targeted response in the end makes it more difficult for U.S. soldiers, because these civilian killings breed such resentments and feelings of revenge."
Although the Pentagon and Western news media keep a close count of U.S. casualties, no authority tallies civilian deaths, including those caused by occupation troops. Human Rights Watch tallied 94 "credible reports" of civilian deaths from May 1 to Sept. 30 from Iraqi police records, tallies made by other human rights groups and Western news reports that named the dead. The report confirmed 20 of the deaths through direct interviews with relatives and witnesses.
Sixteen of those were by fire from soldiers of two divisions, the 82nd Airborne and the 1st Armored, which were expected to shift quickly -- and repeatedly -- between combat operations and something more like public safety. The report notes that both divisions were trained only for combat, then thrust into roles for which the soldiers were not trained, unlike the military police who now patrol much of the capital.
"The soldiers have been asked to go from killing the enemy to protecting and interacting, and back to killing again," an unidentified commander wrote in an "after action report" filed April 24 and quoted by Human Rights Watch. "The soldiers are blurred and confused about the rules of engagement... . Soldiers who have just conducted combat against dark-skinned personnel wearing civilian clothes have difficulty trusting dark-skinned personnel wearing civilian clothes."
Most of the civilian deaths documented in the report occurred at checkpoints, during raids or when troops opened fire after an ambush.
In one incident, a 20-year-old Iraqi man celebrating good exam scores with a carload of friends ran a checkpoint he could not see because the power had failed. Over his blaring stereo, he did not hear a warning shot or the shouts of pedestrians, a researcher found. He was shot and killed.
In other cases, U.S. soldiers fired without warning, witnesses said. For example, soldiers mistook a boy of 11 carrying a bedroll for a man carrying an AK-47 assault rifle and killed him. In another case, soldiers at a Special Forces checkpoint killed a boy, 14, in one car, and 30 minutes later opened fire on a second car, killing three people inside, including a woman, 75.
"We are not saying the U.S. military is not operating in a hostile environment," said Abrahams, who researched the report. "But that does not clear them of the obligation to do everything possible to protect civilians, and that is not what we're seeing."
A Pentagon spokesman quoted by the Reuters news agency said that U.S. forces went to "extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties, even at the risk of their own lives" and that "even one innocent death is a sad fact, something we sincerely regret." Accusations against U.S. troops involved in civilian deaths "are always thoroughly investigated and corrective actions are taken," he added.
Events on Monday underscored the issues at the heart of the report: While 30 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne were scouring an intersection in the city of Fallujah for booby traps, one detonated, killing a soldier.
Two Iraqis were killed soon afterward, according to the Associated Press. One was a truck driver said to have been hit by a spray of return fire from the Americans. The AP said relatives of a second Iraqi man asserted he had been executed by the soldiers during raids that followed the attack.
[Source: By Karl Vick, Washington Post Foreign Service, 21oct03]
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