Off Target: The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq

December 12th, 2003 - by admin

by Human Rights Watch Report –

Off Target:
The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq


Principal Findings

US President George W. Bush called the war in Iraq “one of the swiftest and most humane military campaigns in history.”1 Yet thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed or injured during the three weeks of fighting from the first air strikes on March 20 to April 9, 2003, when Baghdad fell to US-led Coalition forces.

Human Rights Watch conducted a mission to Iraq between late April and early June 2003 with two objectives:

(1) to identify and investigate potential violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) by the parties to the conflict, and

(2) to identify patterns of combat by those parties which may have caused civilian casualties and suffering that could have been avoided if additional precautions had been taken.

Human Rights Watch did not undertake this mission to determine the number of civilian casualties. Rather, it sought to understand how and why civilians were killed or injured in order to assess compliance with international humanitarian law, with a view to lessening the impact of war on civilians in the future.

Violations on Both Sides
The investigation showed that Iraqi forces committed a number of violations of international humanitarian law, which may have led to significant civilian casualties. These violations included use of human shields, abuse of the red cross and red crescent emblems, use of antipersonnel landmines, location of military objects in protected places (such as mosques, hospitals, and cultural property), and a failure to take adequate precautions to protect civilians from the dangers of military operations.

The Iraqi military’s practice of wearing civilian clothes tended to erode the distinction between combatants and civilians, putting the latter at risk, although it did not relieve Coalition forces of their obligation to distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians and to target only combatants.

US-led Coalition forces took precautions to spare civilians and, for the most part, made efforts to uphold their legal obligations. Human Rights Watch nevertheless identified practices that led to civilian casualties in the air war, ground war, and post-conflict period.

Deadly Use of Clusterbombs
The widespread use of cluster munitions, especially by US and UK ground forces, caused at least hundreds of civilian casualties. Cluster munitions, which are large weapons containing dozens or hundreds of submunitions, endanger civilians because of their broad dispersal, or “footprint,” and the high number of submunitions that do not explode on impact. US Central Command (CENTCOM) reported that it used 10,782 cluster munitions, which could contain at least 1.8 million submunitions.

The British used an additional seventy air-launched and 2,100 ground-launched cluster munitions, containing 113,190 submunitions. Although cluster munition strikes are particularly dangerous in populated areas, US and UK ground forces repeatedly used these weapons in attacks on Iraqi positions in residential neighborhoods. Coalition air forces also caused civilian casualties by their use of cluster munitions, but to a much lesser degree.

’Unsound Targeting Methodology’
Many of the civilian casualties from the air war occurred during US attacks targeting senior Iraqi leaders. The United States used an unsound targeting methodology that relied on intercepts of satellite phones and inadequate corroborating intelligence.

Thuraya satellite phones provide geo-coordinates that are accurate only to within a one-hundred-meter (328-foot) radius; therefore, the United States could not determine the origin of a call to a degree of accuracy greater than a 31,400-square-meter area. This flawed targeting strategy was compounded by a lack of effective assessment both prior to the attacks of the potential risks to civilians and after the attacks of their success and utility.

All of the 50 acknowledged attacks targeting Iraqi leadership failed. While they did not kill a single targeted individual, the strikes killed and injured dozens of civilians. Iraqis who spoke to Human Rights Watch about the attacks it investigated repeatedly stated that they believed the intended targets were not even present at the time of the strikes.

Attacks on Iraqi Media ‘Legally Questionable’
Coalition air strikes on preplanned fixed targets apparently caused few civilian casualties, and US and UK air forces generally avoided civilian infrastructure. Coalition forces did, however, identify certain targets as “dual use,” including electricity and media installations. Human Rights Watch’s investigations found that air strikes on civilian power distribution facilities in al-Nasiriyya caused serious civilian suffering and that the legality of the attacks on media installations was questionable.

Most of the civilian casualties attributable to Coalition conduct in the ground war appear to have been the result of ground-launched cluster munitions. In some instances of direct combat, especially in Baghdad and al-Nasiriyya, problems with training on as well as dissemination and clarity of the rules of engagement (ROE) for US ground forces may have contributed to loss of civilian life.

Deadly ‘Left-overs’ Killed Hundreds of Civilians
Explosive remnants of war (ERW) caused hundreds of civilian casualties during and after major hostilities and continue to do so today. The Coalition left behind many tens of thousands of cluster munition “duds,” i.e. submunitions that did not explode on impact and which then became de facto landmines. If the average failure rate were 5 percent, the number of cluster munitions Coalition forces reported using would leave about 90,000 duds.

The humanitarian and military harm they caused has led even some of the soldiers who fought in Iraq to call for an alternative to a weapon that produces so many duds. Meanwhile, Iraqi forces abandoned staggering quantities of arms and ammunition that have injured or killed civilians searching for playthings or scraps to sell or reuse.

US and UK military and civilian leaders have repeatedly stressed their commitment to avoiding civilian casualties and other harm to civilians. Neither country,however, does an adequate job of investigating and analyzing why civilian casualties occur. That job, left largely to organizations like Human Rights Watch, should be the responsibility of parties to the conflict.

Having the capability to do this kind of assessment, the United States and United Kingdom should accurately account for the civilian casualties they cause in armed conflict so that they can provide maximum protection to civilians in any future conflict.

To read the entire, comprehensive report, go to the Human Rights Watch website listed below: