Close and deadly contact
On a sunny April afternoon, a bomb ripped a jagged hole in the road near Abu Mohammed’s small grocery store. Gunfire crackled along the street as U.S. soldiers responded to the attack. Someone pounded frantically on the grocer’s locked door, pleading for help.
Mohammed recognized the frightened voice as that of a local teenager and let him inside. The 17-year-old had been struck by a bullet in the chaos that followed the explosion and was bleeding heavily. Within two hours, the boy was dead. Witnesses charge 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 the shootings happen frequently and that even if troops are firing at suspected attackers, they often do so on city 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 can occur.
With more troops on the ground as a result of President Bush’s “surge,” U.S. military officials acknowledge that there are greater chances for civilian casualties.
“Being that we are doing more operations in places where we were not before, and doing operations in large numbers, there is just more contact with the enemy and therefore more chance of people on the periphery being involved in that,” said Army Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a military spokesman in Baghdad.
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 has traveled frequently to Iraq to advise the Pentagon, said he doubts there are enough mid-level 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 March 2003. In the heat of the 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 individual 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. Last year, retired Lt. Col. Andrew J. Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran who is a professor of international relations at Boston University, estimated that U.S. troops alone had killed “tens of thousands” of innocent Iraqis, either by accident or through carelessness.
The challenge of reaching an accurate tally has become more acute since the military surge began.
The Iraqi government, eager to show that the security plan is working, has stopped releasing monthly civilian casualty figures to the United Nations, arguing that Cabinet ministries collecting the numbers were inflating them for political purposes.
The U.S. military rarely issues public reports on civilians it has killed or wounded. It did not respond to requests for information on civilians killed this year by U.S. troops.
Since mid-February, Los Angeles Times stringers across Iraq have reported at least 18 incidents in which witnesses said troops had opened fire wildly or in areas crowded with civilians, usually after being attacked. The reports indicated that at least 22 noncombatants died in the incidents. Because they are based on various witness accounts and reports from hospital and police officials, many of whom refuse to give their names, it is not possible to independently verify most reports.
If the 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.
The shop where the teenager sought shelter is a few minutes’ walk from his home in a middle-class neighborhood of split-level houses with balconies, driveways and cerise bougainvillea draping garden walls. The stroll took him down his quiet street to a commercial strip with small stores, butcher shops and cafes. Parallel to the strip is a median and then a highway, which passes beneath a concrete tangle of overpasses before heading to the airport. Blackened blotches are evidence of the frequency of attacks on troops patrolling it.
Mohammed said the bomb went off about 1 p.m., when his shop, which is attached to his home, was closed. “I was hesitant to open the door because I was afraid that the American soldiers would shoot me dead,” he said, recalling his initial thoughts after the boy began beating on his door.
The shopkeeper laid the boy on the shop’s concrete floor, amid racks of potato chips, candies and soap, and placed a pillow under his head as the boy used his waning energy to recite his mother’s phone number. Mohammed called repeatedly, but the line was busy, and he never got through.
In the meantime, he said, troops kept firing.
“They were confused and angry and suspecting anyone around,” Mohammed said. “If a bird had passed by, they would have shot it.”
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 southwestern Baghdad neighborhood with bullets after a sniper attack.
Safi, who was the minister of civil society in the government of former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, said his brother had just stepped out of a minibus taxi and was walking home about 4 p.m. when the shooting began.
“We don’t blame the entire U.S. military, but these things are happening,” Safi said.
In some places, such as Diyala province and Sadr City, where anti-U.S. sentiment is especially high, there often are vast disparities between what locals say happened and what official accounts describe.
Even the troops directly involved in incidents often cannot say if civilian casualties have occurred.
Garver cited a Sadr City raid on May 10 in which locals said helicopter gunships killed several people inside a house. The military said three civilians were wounded but made no mention of civilian deaths. But Garver said troops did not reenter the targeted house to check for civilian casualties.
“I can’t tell you that nobody got killed in that specific incident,” Garver said. “In some instances, we’re not able to know what really happened.”
Because the teenager slipped into the grocery store after being shot and was taken to a hospital by relatives, it is likely soldiers never knew he had been hit. Witnesses said that at least one civilian woman died in the same incident.
The military has guidelines designed to keep civilian casualties to a minimum. Printed on a card that every service member is supposed to carry, they permit use of force in self-defense against people committing hostile acts or exhibiting hostile intent. “You must be reasonably certain that your target is the source of the threat,” the rules state.
Military officials have acknowledged, however, that the rules are sometimes broken in the heat of combat.
At a news briefing last June, after the killings of Iraqi civilians by Marines in the town of Haditha came to light, Army Brig. Gen. Donald Campbell, then chief of staff of Multinational Forces in Iraq, said troops “become stressed, they become fearful” on a battlefield where it is difficult to tell civilians from insurgents.
“It doesn’t excuse the acts that have occurred, and we’re going to look into them,” he said, referring to Haditha and other reported killings of civilians. “But I would say it’s stress, fear, isolation, and in some cases they’re just upset. They see their buddies getting blown up on occasion and they could snap.”
Iraqis can seek compensation when relatives are killed by U.S. troops. But as the security situation worsens, they are less likely to do so, said Jon Tracy, a former Army captain who spent 14 months in Iraq as a military lawyer adjudicating such claims.
Filing a claim involves visiting a U.S. military post, he pointed out. “The reality is if you go to a U.S. base or a CMO [civilian military operations center], that is viewed as a target, so nobody really wants to go there to file their claims,” said Tracy, a consultant for the Washington-based Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, which has lobbied to make it easier for Iraqis to get compensatory payments.
From the start of the war through 2006, at least 479 Iraqis filed claims asking for compensation for civilian relatives allegedly killed by U.S. troops, according to records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU says the list is not complete.
Most claimants were denied damages because the incidents were judged combat-related, excluding them from compensation payments under federal law. The military can also make condolence payments, but those do not include a military admission of responsibility and are capped at $2,500. Many are less, and not enough to make it worth many Iraqis’ efforts.
“No amount of money is worth a drop of my brother’s blood,” said Safi, who said his family had not applied for compensation or condolence payments. “We don’t want money. We just want to hold the military responsible.”
Times staff writers Saad Khalaf in Baghdad and Peter Spiegel in Washington and special correspondents in Baghdad and Baqubah contributed to this report.