As Combat Escalates, Sparing Civilians Gets Harder Too

Times Staff Writer

The war in Iraq has entered a difficult phase in which protecting coalition forces without killing or wounding large numbers of civilians is growing harder by the day.

During the opening phases of the war, many U.S. combat troops moved north through open desert or bypassed major cities and towns. With plenty of space and time, troops on the line were spared the need to make instant judgments between life and death.

But as elements of the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Division advanced deeper into the more densely populated areas south of Baghdad on Tuesday, they were finding it increasingly troublesome to hold civilians at arm’s length.

That proximity and the lightning-quick decisions that mark warfare mean that the margin of error is evaporating in a conflict that places a high priority on protecting American and coalition lives but also holding civilian casualties to a minimum -- for both humanitarian and political reasons.


In the cold calculus of war, there is always a trade-off between safeguarding one’s own troops and protecting the lives of civilians. The closer troops are to civilians, and the faster a combat force tries to advance, the more difficult it becomes to avoid killing or injuring noncombatants caught in its path.

“The only way to get speed without U.S. casualties is inordinate firepower,” said Richard Hart Sinnreich, former director of the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies. “We’re going to have to face the trade-off between speed and casualties -- U.S. military and Iraqi civilian casualties.

“These two political incentives are at war. And at some point, avoiding civilian casualties can lead to such delay that it ends up costing more lives,” he said, echoing an argument made by many other military analysts.

Fought over the objections of some of the United States’ oldest allies, and virulent opposition in the Arab world, the war is fraught with political implications.

That is why senior U.S. officials have repeatedly emphasized their efforts to avoid civilian casualties. Commanders Tuesday defended their troops’ right to protect themselves and said that any blame lies with Saddam Hussein.

Officials with the U.S. Central Command based in Doha, Qatar, said the bloodiest of several incidents -- the killing of seven women and children in a car that U.S. troops said ran a checkpoint -- was under investigation. But they sought to shift responsibility to Iraqi fighters who they say often hide behind civilians.

“The blood is on the hands of the regime for their decisions and their willingness to use their population this way,” said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, spokesman for Central Command. “If there’s a question of morality, it really should go back to the regime.

“While we regret the loss of any civilian lives, at this point they remain unavoidable.”

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed Brooks in remarks at Tuesday’s Pentagon briefing: “I’d like to express our regrets to the families of the Iraqis killed yesterday at the checkpoint near An Najaf. Loss of any innocent life is truly tragic.

“Our policy of doing all we can to spare civilian lives stands in sharp contrast to the Iraqi regime’s constant violations of the international laws of armed conflict and the Geneva Convention, let alone decent human behavior,” he said. “The climate established by the Iraqi regime contributed to this incident.”

In Baghdad, Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan rejected U.S. explanations.

“Those are women and children. Even if they don’t stop in time, you don’t shoot them like that,” he said. “It was intentional. It reflects the nature of the aggression.”

Brooks said that troops were increasing their “vigilance” in the wake of a suicide bombing Saturday that killed four U.S. servicemen and that propaganda campaigns that have been trying to win Iraqi support will also inform them on how to behave at checkpoints.

“You’re dealing with young kids on the front lines, be they from the U.K., Australia or the U.S.,” said James Wilkinson, spokesman for Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in the war. “They may be jumpy out there, but they have reason to be, because of the tactics of terror.”

More incidents involving civilians were reported Tuesday. Capt. Kenrick Bourne of the 101st Airborne said soldiers wounded seven women and children in two shootings at checkpoints. He said that in both cases, cars loaded with women and children but driven by men did not stop at roadblocks.

The problem in coming weeks is not so much that Hussein’s regime has resorted to using suicide bombers and paramilitary fighters who masquerade as civilians. Standing alone, both are manageable.

What elevates such tactics into a major threat to U.S. troops and to the Bush administration’s larger objectives for the war is the fact that Hussein’s regime has embraced them just as the nature of the battlefield has begun to change.

“We have accepted some operational handicaps in order to be careful. It’s a tactical cost for a strategic gain,” said Jeffrey White, a defense analyst at the Washington Institute.

“They don’t have a lot of options, but they have some,” he said of Iraqi fighters. “They can fight from within their population.”

Inevitably, the Iraqi decision to use civilians and to draw the fight to populous areas -- farms, villages and crossroads hamlets, as well as major cities such as Basra and Baghdad -- exposes coalition troops to greater risks, as British Marines have experienced in Basra.

“As long as we’re being careful, and we’re being extremely careful,” White said, the risks of U.S. casualties are unavoidable.

And so is some level of civilian casualties.

“If political time were not a factor, if we are prepared to be patient, then I believe the Iraqi forces can be taken down without undue cost either to us or to the Iraqis,” said Sinnreich, the former Army school director. “But if people get hepped on doing things in a hurry, that’s not going to happen.

“The enemy has a vote. But we also have a vote.”

Franks insists that the problem is easily managed.

“What it means is that all of our troops will exercise caution, will increase the standoff to civilian vehicles and the things that I think would be common sense to anyone in order to better protect against this particular kind of threat,” Franks said after Saturday’s suicide bombing.

“The question, well, what effect will this have on noncombatants? It doesn’t change the rules that we use at all,” he said.

But the incident near Najaf on Monday showed the limits of that policy: It appears that the Army unit was operating in such close confines to civilians that increasing “the standoff to civilian vehicles,” in Franks’ phrase, may not have been an option.


Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.