Shots to the Heart of Iraq
Three men in an unmarked sedan pulled up near the headquarters of the national police major crimes unit. The two passengers, wearing traditional Arab dishdasha gowns, stepped from the car.
At the same moment, a U.S. military convoy emerged from an underpass. Apparently believing the men were staging an ambush, the Americans fired, killing one passenger and wounding the other. The sedan’s driver was hit in the head by two bullet fragments.
The soldiers drove on without stopping.
This kind of shooting is far from rare in Baghdad, but the driver of the car was no ordinary casualty. He was Iraqi police Brig. Gen. Majeed Farraji, chief of the major crimes unit. His passengers were unarmed hitchhikers whom he was dropping off on his way to work.
“The reason they shot us is just because the Americans are reckless,” the general said from his hospital bed hours after the July 6 shooting, his head wrapped in a white bandage. “Nobody punishes them or blames them.”
Angered by the growing number of unarmed civilians killed by American troops in recent weeks, the Iraqi government criticized the shootings and called on U.S. troops to exercise greater care.
U.S. officials have repeatedly declined requests to disclose the number of civilians killed in such incidents. Police in Baghdad say they have received reports that U.S. forces killed 33 unarmed civilians and injured 45 in the capital between May 1 and July 12 -- an average of nearly one fatality every two days. This does not include incidents that occurred elsewhere in the country or were not reported to the police.
The continued shooting of civilians is fueling a growing dislike of the United States and undermining efforts to convince the public that American soldiers are here to help. The victims have included doctors, journalists, a professor -- the kind of people the U.S. is counting on to help build an open and democratic society.
“Of course the shootings will increase support for the opposition,” said Farraji, 49, who was named a police general with U.S. approval. “The hatred of the Americans has increased. I myself hate them.”
Among the biggest threats U.S. forces face are suicide attacks. Soldiers are exposed as they stand watch at checkpoints or ride on patrol in the turrets of their Humvees. The willingness of the assailants to die makes the attacks difficult to guard against. By their nature, the bombings erode the troops’ trust of the public; every civilian becomes suspect.
U.S. military officials say the troops must protect themselves by shooting the driver of any suspicious vehicle before it reaches them.
Heavily armed private security contractors, who number in the tens of thousands, also are authorized by the U.S. government to use deadly force to protect themselves.
One contractor who works for the U.S. government and saw a colleague killed in a suicide bombing said it was better to shoot an innocent person than to risk being killed.
“I’d rather be tried by 12 than carried by six,” said the contractor, who insisted that he not be identified by name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The U.S. military says it investigates all shootings by American personnel that result in death. But U.S. Brig. Gen. Don Alston, spokesman for the multinational force in Iraq, said he was unaware of any soldier disciplined for shooting a civilian at a checkpoint or in traffic. Findings are seldom made public.
A senior U.S. military official in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said “making no new enemies” was one of the military’s priorities. At the same time, he said, “it’s still a combat zone. There are going to be times when what the soldier needs to do and what the civilian feels he should be able to do come into conflict.”
On June 27, the day he turned 49, Salah Jmor arrived in Baghdad to visit his family.
His father, Abdul-Rihman Jmor, is the chief of a Kurdish clan that numbers more than 20,000. Salah had left Iraq 25 years ago for Switzerland, where he earned a doctorate in international relations and eventually became a Swiss citizen.
For a decade, he represented Iraqi Kurds at the United Nations Office at Geneva. In 1988, he helped call the world’s attention to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons on Kurds in the northern Iraqi town of Halabja and the massacre of at least 100,000 Kurds in what is known as the Anfal campaign.
After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Salah Jmor was offered a post in the new Iraqi government. But he turned it down, preferring to remain in Geneva, where he was an associate professor at the Center for International and Comparative Programs of Kent State University of Ohio.
The morning after he arrived in Baghdad, he decided to go with his younger brother, architect Abdul-Jabbar Jmor, to his office. Abdul-Jabbar, 38, drove his Opel hatchback down the eight-lane Mohammed Qasim highway through central Baghdad. It was 9:30 a.m. and many vehicles were on the road.
The Opel hatchback is a model favored by insurgents.
The brothers were in the fast lane as a U.S. military convoy of three Humvees was entering the highway from the Gailani onramp. Neither of them saw the soldiers, Abdul-Jabbar said.
Abruptly, Salah slumped over into his brother’s lap. Abdul-Jabbar asked what was wrong and then saw blood pouring from Salah’s head. There was a single bullet hole in the windshield.
He saw the convoy moving ahead as he pulled over to the side of the road. He said he had seen no signal to slow down and heard no warning shot.
The soldiers turned around and came back a few minutes later. One said he was sorry, Abdul-Jabbar said. Together they waited more than an hour for an ambulance to arrive.
“I asked them, ‘Why didn’t you shoot me? I am the driver,’ ” Abdul-Jabbar recalled. “But they didn’t answer me.”
Abdul-Jabbar said he and his family had supported the U.S. troops when they first invaded Iraq, but no longer.
“This kind of incident makes people hate the Americans more and more,” he said. “They don’t care about the lives of the people. Each day they make new enemies.”
Switzerland has requested an explanation of Jmor’s killing. In Washington, the State Department said the United States had sent its condolences to the Swiss government and Jmor’s family and that the Pentagon had begun an investigation. In Baghdad, Abdul-Jabbar said the family had met with the Swiss ambassador but had received no expression of condolences from the U.S. government. No U.S. investigator has contacted the family, he added.
There is a strong tradition of revenge in Iraq’s tribal culture. The killing of such a prominent clan member could have triggered a bloodbath that would claim 200 lives, said the patriarch, Abdul-Rihman. But the Jmors, a well-educated family of doctors and engineers, say they want the judicial process to hold Salah’s killer accountable.
“People say if they kill my brother, I have to kill one of them,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “But I believe in justice. I can’t just go kill them. The United States says it is the leader of justice in the world. Let us see that.”
In Iraq, the U.S. military has redefined the rules of the road.
Military checkpoints -- elaborate affairs with mazes of concrete barriers, razor wire and snipers’ nests -- have been set up at intersections all over Baghdad. Signs are posted in English and Arabic saying “Deadly Force Authorized.” Cars that approach too quickly risk being fired upon by troops who shoot to kill.
At times, troops set up temporary checkpoints during raids or other military operations. These can be even more dangerous for civilians because they can appear on city streets without warning.
Military convoys, usually made up of three Humvees, patrol the streets. In each vehicle, a gunner stands with his upper body partially exposed and ready to operate a machine gun mounted on the roof. For troops, it is among the most hazardous places to be in Iraq.
The military expects all vehicles to stay at least 100 yards from a convoy. When cars come too close, troops signal them to move back, sometimes by waving a little stop sign and sometimes by holding up a clenched fist.
Some Iraqis say the fist can be easy to miss. It also can be confusing for motorists in Iraq, where the normal signal for stop is an upraised open hand, as it is in the United States.
On the highway, traffic normally bunches up well behind the American Hummers. But keeping the required distance from a convoy can be difficult when the military vehicles unexpectedly change course or merge onto a highway.
The U.S. rules of engagement call for “escalation of force” when a vehicle comes too close. Soldiers are trained to give hand and arm signals first, then fire warning shots and ultimately shoot to kill, the senior U.S. official said.
“Nothing in the rules of engagement takes away the right of self-defense for him and his buddies if the soldier feels threatened,” he said. More than 1,770 U.S. troops have died in the Iraq theater since the March 2003 invasion.
Despite the rising number of civilian deaths, the official said escalation-of-force incidents had fallen by half in the past four months. He declined to provide specific figures.
According to one European diplomat, the American military’s emphasis on protecting its troops has made U.S. soldiers more likely to kill and injure civilians than are other members of the coalition, such as the British, who are stationed in southern Iraq.
“The U.S. has force protection as their No. 1 priority,” said the diplomat, who asked not to be identified because his remarks did not have his government’s prior approval.
“The British have it as a priority, but not by any stretch the absolute priority. I think that makes the U.S. soldiers more jumpy.”
Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the transitional National Assembly, said he personally knew three people, including Salah Jmor, who had been shot and killed by U.S. troops during traffic incidents. Of the other two, one was an athlete, the other a doctor who had been called to her hospital to handle an emergency.
“I understand American soldiers are nervous. It’s very dangerous,” said Othman, who was a member of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council that helped run Iraq after the invasion. “But the killings are undermining support for the U.S. government. It has helped people who call themselves the opposition. It has helped terrorism.”
A recent case highlighted by the Iraqi government in its criticism of the U.S. was the June 24 killing of Yasser Salihee, 30, an Iraqi special correspondent for Knight-Ridder newspapers. Salihee, a physician, had taken a rare day off and planned to take his wife and daughter swimming. He went to get gasoline and was returning home at midmorning. By then, U.S. troops were conducting a military operation in his neighborhood. It appears he did not see them until it was too late.
The route he chose was not blocked off and there was no sign warning motorists to halt, witnesses say. As he neared the scene of the military operation, a U.S. Army sniper fired at his car. One bullet hit a tire. The other hit Salihee in the forehead. That bullet also severed fingers on his right hand, indicating he was holding up at least one of his hands at the time he was killed. U.S. officials are investigating the shooting.
Salihee’s widow, Raghad al Wazzan, said she accepted the American soldiers’ presence when they first arrived in Iraq because “they came and liberated us.” She sometimes helped them at the hospital where she works as a doctor. But not anymore.
“Now, after they killed my husband, I hate them,” she said. “I want to blow them all up.”
Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi and Raheem Salman in Baghdad and Paul Richter in Washington and special correspondent Asmaa Waguih in Baghdad contributed to this report.