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Painful legacy

Firas Al-Atraqchi

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The occupation of Iraq will leave a legacy of murder and disregard for human life in its wake, writes Firas Al-Atraqchi

June 8, 2006

While world media discusses the Haditha and Ishaqi atrocities "and the guilt or innocence therein of the United States military", it should be stressed that the beginning of the Iraqi resistance movements in Iraq can be traced back to several similar incidents during and after the March 2003 invasion.

Since the days of the beginning of hostilities in Iraq, Iraqis have complained that US troops were ruthless and trigger- happy, often responding to incidents of violence with disproportionate force and caring little for Iraqi casualties.

In the first two years of the post-Saddam Hussein war, US military officials have repeatedly told the media that while they do not target civilians, they did not conduct a tally of civilian casualties.

The first signs that Iraqis were in for a bloody and inhumane occupation were felt in the precision bombing of Baghdad and other cities. Arab media clamoured viciously to broadcast the freshest images of civilian dead which were coming in to news bureaus every hour.

By now, there are several images which have become ingrained into the collective psyche of this war. But there are other stories, many of them without accompanying footage, which have long been forgotten by many. For example, on 31 March, 10 women and children were killed near Najaf when a van they were in was riddled with fire from US Marines who had tried to get it to stop at a military checkpoint. After an earlier suicide bombing caused the death of four US Marines at another checkpoint, occupation forces were instructed to shoot at any vehicle or person that does not stop. US Marines said they had shouted at the driver to stop but to no avail. They then fired warning shots, but the van did not stop. The matter is still under purported investigation more than three years later. According to the BBC, and quoting the Washington Post, there are conflicting reports that the warning shots were fired too late to warn off the van. "You just [expletive] killed a family because you didn't fire a warning shot soon enough!" the paper quotes Captain Ronny Johnson as telling his platoon leader.

But no incident has generated more fallout than the one in Falluja less than three weeks after the fall of Baghdad. On 29 April 2003, dozens of Iraqi demonstrators protesting against the use of an elementary school as a US military base were killed by US troops. World press reports put the number of Iraqi dead at 20, with some 75 more wounded. The US military said it had been fired on; a claim dismissed by Falluja residents who also said three children under the age of 11 were among those killed by US fire. At the time, US troops prevented medical assistance from reaching the wounded and claimed the demonstrators were armed and fired at US troops. Ahmed Ghanim Al-Ali, director of Falluja's General Hospital, told the media at the time his medical crews were shot at when they tried to reach the wounded. The US military contended that its troops fired only in self- defence.

A day later, three more Iraqi civilians were killed and 16 wounded. Human Rights Watch investigated the two incidents. Significantly, Human Rights Watch did not find conclusive evidence of bullet damage on the school where US soldiers were based during the first incident, placing into serious question the assertion that they had come under fire from individuals in the crowd. In contrast, the buildings across the street facing the school had extensive evidence of multi-calibre bullet impacts that were wider and more sustained than would have been caused by the "precision fire" with which the soldiers maintain they responded, leading to the civilian casualties that day.

Witness testimony and ballistics evidence suggest that US troops responded with excessive force to a perceived threat.

In the second incident on 30 April, protesters admitted throwing rocks, and one broke the window of a US military vehicle, injuring a soldier. But there was no clear evidence of shooting from the crowd, again suggesting that US forces responded with disproportionate force. The incident was no longer investigated by the US military, but the Iraqi deaths in Falluja added to the stories of tens of Iraqis being killed at military checkpoints and helped birth armed resistance against the US military.

By June 2003 Falluja had become a serious threat to the US military occupation of Iraq. Attacks on US forces soared to nearly 40 a day and US casualties mounted.

On 26 June, 12-year-old Mohamed Al-Kubaisi was killed by US troops as he stood on the roof of his Baghdad house watching a US patrol walking in the street below. His mother held him as he was struggling for breath when US forces stormed his house and pushed him aside as they searched the domicile. After the boy died, an internal military investigation was launched but the details have not been made public.

On 9 August, a man and his three children, the youngest just eight, were killed when US forces fired on their vehicle after hearing gunfire nearby the Al-Tunis district of Baghdad. The mother and surviving daughter screamed at US soldiers to stop, that they were a family, but the firing continued. The mother later said they were not speeding and were driving very slowly up to a checkpoint so as to not alarm the Americans.

Hospital officials later said two of the children died of blood loss and could have been saved had US military personnel not prevented medical assistance from reaching them. No US soldier was investigated or reprimanded for this incident.

On 18 November three Iraqis -- including a child -- were killed when US troops opened fire at a Baghdad gun market. US soldiers later said they had fired on the market in error after hearing gunfire, apparently from Iraqis testing the merchandise. The case was closed.

On 27 November, Riad Khalas Abdullah, 25, was driving at a normal speed 150 metres from one of a series of US checkpoints in the northern city of Kirkuk when US soldiers opened fire on him killing him instantly. A brief investigation showed he had no weapons and explosives in his car. Although Abdullah was the sixth person to be killed by US forces in such circumstances in the same spot in Kirkuk, the US military did not press the matter further and said he was killed in error.

On 9 December 2003, Shia cleric Abdul-Razzaq Al-Lami who ran Al-Rahman Mosque in Sadr City was killed when a US tank crushed him in his car. The US army said an enquiry had been launched but since then no details have emerged.

This scenario has been repeated in almost every Iraqi city with a US military presence. Estimates indicate more than 1,000 Iraqi civilians, including hundreds of women and children, have been killed by "nervous" US troops at checkpoints and in traffic accidents.

Another incident that seems to have been lost in the so-called fog of war is the US military operation in the city of Samaraa on 30 November, 2003. US military officials said they had thwarted an ambush by Iraqi "insurgents", killing 54 of them. But Samaraa residents as well as hospital officials said eight civilians had been killed, including a woman and a child, when a US military convoy opened fire indiscriminately. Hospital director Abd Tawfiq told AFP that more than 60 civilians were wounded. When Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt was pressed by the media to provide answers to the discrepancies in reports and figures, he said he would enquire about the matter but said many of these questions would never be answered.

To this day, they haven't been. In 2004, the killing of Iraqis under dubious circumstances continued. On 11 September, a helicopter attack on a group of Iraqis gathered around the burning wreckage of a Bradley fighting vehicle killed 10 people including several young boys and a Palestinian journalist working with the Al-Arabiya news network. Witnesses said the group of Iraqis was comprised of unarmed onlookers, but the US military did not comment. On 20 October, two girls were killed when their car came under fire from a US tank near Falluja, hospital sources and the surviving wounded mother of the children told the media. The US military did not comment.

On 28 October, press spokesperson for Iraq Body Count (IBC) John Sloboda said that 600 civilians were killed in the May 2004 US military assault on Falluja. At least 308 of those were women and children, he told the media. "This number demonstrates the huge impact of US attacks on civilian areas, and allows the conclusion to be drawn that many of the males killed must also have been non-combatants," IBC said in a press statement at the time. The numbers cited by IBC were never investigated nor scrutinised by the US military. It simply reiterated that it did not target civilians. The matter was tossed aside.

On 20 November, 2004, Iraqi medical sources in the city of Ramadi said seven Iraqi civilians riding in a minibus were killed when US soldiers at a checkpoint fired on them. The US military said only three people had been killed when the minibus driver failed to heed warnings to stop. The discrepancy in figures has still not been resolved.

Also on 20 November, residents of the town of Sawlawiya, near Falluja, said they buried 73 women and children burned to death in an attack on the city in western Iraq. Although Iraqi sources alleged the use of napalm, US forces insisted no prohibited armaments were used and denied responsibility for the deaths. No enquiry was launched.

In response to allegations of widespread abuse of human rights and the killing of civilians by US forces in Falluja, United Nations human rights official Louise Arbour called for an investigation saying, "there has been a number of reports during the current confrontation alleging violations of the rules of war designed to protect civilians and combatants."

Neither the Iraqi interim government nor US military authorities acknowledged Arbour's recommendations. Aerial assaults have also killed hundreds of Iraqi civilians, according to local medical authorities, but the US military has insisted -- despite footage of dead women and children being dug out from the rubble of demolished homes -- that it had targeted terrorists in all cases.

On 12 August, many women and children were among the 75 Iraqis killed after US fighter jets struck the southern city of Kut in a bid to target forces loyal to Shia leader Muqtada Sadr.

On 8 October, 13 people, including a groom at his wedding ceremony, were killed when US fighter jets fired on a building in Falluja. US forces said they had struck a terrorist safe haven and dealt a severe blow to foreign fighters in Iraq.

Hospital sources, however, said all the dead were civilians. The bride was among 17 others wounded. Iraq clerics in Falluja called on the interim Iraqi government to launch an investigation. To this date, no such investigation has surfaced.

On 21 December, US fighter jets struck targets in Hiyt, west of Baghdad. Hospital sources said at the time that six civilians were killed and nine others -- including women and children -- were wounded. No enquiry.

On 28 October, US military authorities said fighter jets had struck a terrorist safe house in Falluja and killed terrorists planning attacks on Iraqi security forces. Hospital sources said those killed were civilians. No inquiry.

The above examples are but a small fraction of the reports and incidents alleging misconduct and disproportionate use of firepower by US military forces in Iraq. To write of each and every charge would fill volumes. However, the examples above serve to highlight the culture of death that has been enforced on Iraq -- a culture of disregard for the lives of civilians.

While the same disregard can surely be said of terrorist groups and the handiwork of Iraqi militias executing and murdering Iraqi civilians, the US military is billed as the most organised and disciplined armed force in the world and cannot be measured in terms used to describe the lawless outfits which roam Iraq.

It is meant to be better than that. Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies believes such misconduct "tends to confirm all of the worst interpretations of the United States, and not simply in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan and in the region".

On 20 November 2003, the Los Angeles Times Andrew M Cockburn quoted a US official in Washington as saying "We are one stressed-out reservist away from a massacre." That was almost three years ago and since then we have heard of hundreds of such stories occurring in Iraq with frightening frequency. If reservists were so close to committing a "massacre" six months into the occupation of Iraq, what has transpired since?

It is incumbent upon the Iraqi government and the US military to reopen all allegations of murder and killing of civilians in the past three years. It is one thing to seek to build a democracy in Iraq. It is another to do so without encouraging the pursuit of justice and prosecution of war crimes.


:: Article nr. 23813 sent on 09-jun-2006 09:02 ECT

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Link: weekly.ahram.org.eg/2006/798/re3.htm



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