The U.S. military is deploying a laser device in Iraq that would temporarily blind drivers who fail to heed warnings at checkpoints, in an attempt to stem shootings of innocent Iraqis.
The pilot project will equip thousands of M-4 rifles with the 10 1/2 -inch-long weapon, which projects an intense beam of green light to “dazzle” the vision of oncoming drivers.
“I think this is going to make a huge difference in avoiding these confrontations,” said Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the commander in charge of day-to-day operations in Iraq. “I promise you no one -- no one -- will be able to ignore it.”
But so-called tactical laser devices have been controversial in the past. A protocol to the Geneva Convention bans the use of lasers that cause blindness, and human rights groups have protested previous U.S. attempts to employ such weapons.
A decade ago, the experimental use of tactical laser devices by U.S. Marines in Somalia was curtailed at the last minute for “humane reasons,” according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which called their use “repugnant to the public conscience” in a 1995 report.
The Pentagon has canceled several programs for the stronger “blinding” lasers, in adherence to the Geneva protocol, according to Human Rights Watch. But the group has said that even less powerful “dazzling” lasers, similar to the one to be deployed in Iraq, can cause permanent damage.
One Washington-based defense analyst said American troops and commanders should not underestimate how the laser could complicate relations with Iraqis.
“If this ‘safe’ high-intensity laser damages retinas, we’re in for a whole new type of [angry] Iraqi civilians,” said Winslow T. Wheeler, who spent three decades as a Capitol Hill staffer and is now at the Center for Defense Information.
The military, however, has apparently decided the risks can be minimized through proper training and are worth taking to help U.S. troops ward off suicide attacks and to reduce accidental shootings of Iraqi civilians.
“I have no doubt,” Chiarelli said, “that bullets are less safe.”
A military standards panel analyzed the laser -- a modification of a more powerful system used for aiming heavy machine guns -- and found that the device could be harmful to the eyes when viewed from about 75 yards or closer, the manufacturer said.
Lt. Col. Richard Smith, deputy director of the Joint NonLethal Weapons Directorate at the Pentagon, said Wednesday that the deployment of the laser, which has been under development for a decade, marked an important milestone for nonlethal weapons.
“This is really the first time the visually overwhelming devices have actually been used,” Smith said. “This was based off needs of war fighters and commanders in the field. They have several incidents a day where a vehicle is coming at a group of soldiers.... These dazzlers can reach out a couple hundred meters and give solders added security.”
The laser being deployed in Baghdad is one of about six different models being tested by the directorate, Smith said.
In recent months, suicide bombings have been aimed mostly against Iraqis. The bulk of attacks on American troops, in contrast, have been made with explosives hidden along streets and highways.
But about eight times a day around Iraq, American soldiers still shoot in an attempt to stop vehicles that come too close to them, U.S. military statistics show. Although such confrontations are down from double that rate, commanders still worry about wounding or killing noncombatants.
The military has not released figures on the number of Iraqis killed and wounded in the confrontations, but Iraqi civilians frequently have protested what they consider reckless shootings. The Economist magazine quoted coalition military sources this year as saying that about 250 innocent Iraqis had died at vehicle checkpoints in the first three years after the U.S.-led March 2003 invasion.
Concern about the incidents increased as a result of several high-profile shootings early last year. The first came in January 2005, when a U.S. Army patrol in Tall Afar in northern Iraq opened fire on an Opel sedan that did not heed warnings to stop.
Killed as they tried to get home ahead of curfew were a husband and wife, Hussein and Kamila Hassan. Bullets paralyzed their 12-year-old son, Rakan. Four of their other children, ages 2 to 14, watched in terror from the back seat, along with a cousin. The shooting gained wide notoriety when pictures of the blood-soaked children ran in Newsweek magazine.
In March 2005, an Italian intelligence agent delivering a rescued hostage was shot and killed at a checkpoint near the Baghdad airport. The soldiers involved said the car was speeding and ignored warnings, but the freed hostage, journalist Giuliana Sgrena, said that the car was traveling at a moderate speed and that she did not see any warning from the troops.
Chiarelli and his subordinates have said they are determined to limit such incidents, not only to protect their troops and Iraqis but to improve relations between the two sides.
“Save an Iraqi life,” the general recently told a group of soldiers newly arrived in Iraq and training at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad. “Because, I will tell you, most of the time he is just confused.”
The laser that will be attached to soldiers’ rifles here -- known as the “green beam designator” -- is manufactured by B.E. Meyers & Co. of Washington state. The firm calls the device the most powerful of its kind in production.
David Shannon, director of product development for the company, said that at a distance of 110 yards, the beam widens to cover an area about 16 inches in diameter -- a little smaller than a regulation basketball hoop.
The beam can be fixed or set to pulse at two different rates. It can be seen from more than two miles. From 328 yards and closer, it’s powerful enough to be “a strong deterrent,” Shannon said.
In a recent demonstration at the U.S. military headquarters at Camp Victory near Baghdad, a soldier fired the beam across an indoor hallway. Even indirect exposure to the light as it bounced off the white marble floor left observers seeing stars for several minutes afterward.
Shannon agreed in a telephone interview that use of stronger lasers would be “cruel and unusual” even in warfare. But he said the green beam designator was considerably safer, particularly with proper training to limit its use with targets inside 75 yards.
“We know right now that people are dying and being maimed by bullets,” he said. “This whole program is designed so that fewer people die and get hurt.”
Added Matthew Murphy, who handles sales for the company, “It’s almost like looking in the sun. They are going to know they are targeted and more likely than not they are going to stop.”
Neither the company nor the military would say how much the units cost.
Army Sgt. Brendan Woolworth was one of the first soldiers to try the green laser. He said an Iraqi driver got too close to his convoy about 90 days ago and failed to heed shouts to stop. The soldier directed a pulsing beam at the car’s windshield.
“He pulled off to the side of the road and stopped,” Woolworth said. “He got the message. It looked like he just hadn’t been paying attention.”
Although he touted the laser as important in reducing death and injury, Chiarelli recently told troops that they would need to employ many other tools.
The general coached about three dozen troops on understanding Iraqi culture and on improving communications with local leaders. He stressed the importance, when all else failed, of firing warning shots.
He then asked how many in the classroom had been trained to fire a warning shot with the rifles that rested under their desks. Only a few hands went up.
“OK,” responded Chiarelli. “Make sure that is one of the first things you do before you get out of your training here.”
Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.