Global Policy Forum

Civilian Casualties Rise in Iraq


By Tina Susman

Los Angeles Times
June 18, 2007

Embedding more US troops in neighborhoods increases risk, military concedes.

On a sunny April afternoon, a bomb ripped a hole in the road near Abu Mohammed's small grocery store. Gunfire crackled along the street as U.S. soldiers responded. Someone pounded on the grocer's locked door, pleading for help. Mohammed recognized the voice and let in a 17-year-old. He had been struck by a bullet and was bleeding heavily. Within two hours, he was dead. Witnesses say he was killed by U.S. troops firing randomly.

U.S. military officials say troops are trained to avoid civilian casualties and do not fire wildly. Iraqis, however, say that the shootings happen frequently and that even if troops are firing at suspects, they often do so on streets where bystanders are likely to be hit. Rarely is it possible to confirm such incidents. In this case, the boy was the son of a Los Angeles Times employee, which provided reporters knowledge of the incident in time to examine it. Witness and military accounts of the shooting offered a rare look into how such killings occur.

With more troops on the ground as a result of President Bush's "surge," U.S. military officials acknowledge there are greater chances for civilian casualties. The situation is amplified by the challenge of enforcing the counterinsurgency tactics introduced by the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who took charge of the war just as the troop buildup began in mid-February. Under Petraeus, more troops are embedded in Iraq's residential neighborhoods, putting them in closer contact with civilians and forcing them to exercise a level of restraint that can be difficult in Iraq, where attacks on troops are on the rise. Kalev Sepp, a counterinsurgency expert with the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who travels frequently to Iraq to advise the Pentagon, said he doubted there are enough midlevel Army officers who fully understand the complex tactics needed to win over local populations when U.S. units move into neighborhoods en masse. Without such officers, Sepp said, "you just end up with another group of foreign occupation troops shooting civilians who they feel threaten them when their car drives too close to them."

Counting civilian casualties has been a challenge since the start of the Iraq war in 2003. In the heat of battle, troops often move on without knowing whether civilians were killed. Among Iraq's population, competing political agendas can lead to wildly varying accounts of incidents. Estimates of civilians killed by terrorist attacks, sectarian warfare, and in combat-related violence range from tens of thousands to as many as 600,000. The Iraqi government, eager to show that the security plan is working, has stopped releasing monthly civilian casualty figures to the United Nations. The U.S. military rarely issues public reports on civilians it has killed or wounded.

Since mid-February, Los Angeles Times freelance journalists across Iraq have reported at least 18 incidents in which witnesses said troops had fired wildly or in areas crowded with civilians. The reports indicated at least 22 noncombatants died in the incidents. If anecdotal evidence is an indication, such deaths often occur after troops are shaken by roadside bombs, as occurred when the Times employee's son was killed April 17. Mohammed said the bomb went off about 1 p.m., when his shop was closed. "I was hesitant to open the door because I was afraid that the American soldiers would shoot me dead," he said. Mohammed laid the boy on the shop's concrete floor, amid racks of food, and tried to contact the youth's mother. He phoned repeatedly, but the line was busy. In the meantime, troops kept firing. "They were confused and angry and suspecting anyone around," Mohammed said.

The U.S. military said troops shot in self-defense after being targeted first by the bomb and then by gunfire, but Mohammed and other witnesses denied that anybody shot at the soldiers. "It's a psychological thing. When one U.S. soldier gets killed or injured, they shoot in vengeance," said Alaa Safi, who said his brother, Ahmed, was killed April 4 when U.S. troops riddled the streets of their Baghdad neighborhood with bullets after a sniper attack. Safi, who was minister of civil society in the government of former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, said his brother was walking home about 4 p.m. when the shooting began. "We don't blame the entire U.S. military," Safi said, "but these things are happening."

Iraqis can seek compensation when relatives are killed by U.S. troops, but few apply. Filing a claim means visiting a U.S. military post, said Jon Tracy, a former Army captain who adjudicated such claims. "The reality is, if you go to a U.S. base or a CMO [civilian military operations center], that is viewed as a target."

More Information on Iraq
More Information on Iraq's Humanitarian Crisis
More Information on Atrocities and Criminal Homicides in Iraq


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