Wikileaks Reveals: Civilians in the Crosshairs

October 23rd, 2010 - by admin

Al Jazeera & Andrew Wander / Al Jazeera – 2010-10-23 21:56:05

Iraqis Respond to WikiLeaks Files

Many Iraqis say leaked documents reflect what they had long suspected was the truth.

Al Jazeera’s Rawya Rageh reports from Baghdad

VIDEO:Iraq Files Reveal Checkpoint Deaths
Al Jazeera

BAGHDAD (October 23, 2010) — The official reaction from the Iraqi government to the release of WikiLeaks files about the country has been measured in tone. But many members of the Iraqi public say the leaked documents reflect what they had long suspected was the truth.

VIDEO: Iraq Files Reveal Checkpoint Deaths
Al Jazeera

WARNING: Video contains disturbing reports and images of murdered Iraqi drivers and their children.

Civilians in the Crossfire
Al Jazeera

BAGHDAD (October 22, 2010) — In September 2007, an Iraqi in a car ventured too close to a US patrol in Baghdad. The soldiers honked their horns; when that didn’t cause the car to turn away, one of the gunners fired a warning shot. The bullet — intended to harmlessly hit the pavement — instead hit a bystander.

Gunner fires one warning shot from his M4. The bullet ricochets and hits one local national (9 year old girl). Patrol stops traffic at the intersection.

Andrew Bacevich, a military historian and retired US army colonel, wrote in 2006 that “such mistakes have occurred routinely, with moral and political consequences that have been too long ignored.” That assessment is borne out by the leaked reports, which describe almost 14,000 “escalation of force” incidents — the army’s euphemism for often-violent altercations that occurred at checkpoints and near patrols.

About 680 civilians were killed in these incidents between 2004 and 2010, with more than 2,000 wounded.

“Mistakes Were Made”
The “escalation of force” concept is supposed to reduce violence, since it requires US troops to use an escalating series of non-lethal measures before applying deadly force.

In many cases, though, these “escalations” had unintended consequences. According to the reports, more than 300 civilians were injured by warning shots that ricocheted off the pavement or other surfaces. (It’s impossible to know, of course, whether these incidents are reported honestly, or whether soldiers sometimes report a poorly-aimed warning shot as a “ricochet.”)

In several incidents — none of them fatal — soldiers fired warning shots at deaf and nearly-blind men who could not see or hear their verbal warnings. Several mentally ill men were killed: In February 2005, for example, US soldiers shot a man in Mahmoudiya when he ran too close to an approaching convoy. They only later learned that he was mentally ill and often begged for food in the area near the convoy’s route.

Other incidents ended with what the military itself called a disproportionate use of force. In September 2005, after going through an appropriate escalation, two soldiers from the 1-155th infantry opened fire on an approaching vehicle with M249 machine guns. Both poured 100 bullets into the car — five or six seconds of sustained fire from a gun capable of shooting 1,000 rounds per minute.

Relatives of those killed were later awarded $10,000 compensation from the US military, which found the soldiers violated their rules of engagement.

At least a half-dozen incidents involved Iraqi men transporting their pregnant wives or family members to hospitals. A report narrates the incident in Ramadi in May 2005 that left two people wounded.

The engagement resulted in (1) male CWIA (urgent surgical, driver) and (1) female CWIA (front seat passenger). There was (1) pregnant female and her sister in the back seat of the vehicle with no injuries. The pregnant woman expressed that she was going into labour. At 0440D, the woman gave birth at the 1-503 in BAS at combat outpost. [[086:663]]

In another incident, in May 2006, a pregnant woman — Nahiba Jassim — was killed in a checkpoint shooting. She was being rushed to the maternity hospital in Samarra when the car was fired upon at a checkpoint; also killed was a cousin, Saliha Hassan.

One of the most striking things about the reports is the lack of followup: Only in rare cases do the units involved in the shootings update their reports with additional information about their targets.

Soldiers from the 2/12 Cavalry opened fire on a black BMW in Baghdad in July 2007 after the vehicle “failed to respond to hand and arm signals, green laser, paint ball gun, and warning shots”.

The vehicle burst into flames after being shot with a .50 caliber machine gun. The report says that “ammunition [was] seen cooking off inside [the] vehicle,” which would suggest that the car was carrying weapons (ordnance “cooks off” quickly when exposed to the heat of a fire).

But the passengers in the car were apparently a family — a man, a woman, and two children. No attempt is made to determine who the passengers were, or why their vehicle was seemingly loaded with ammunition: their remains are transported to a nearby hospital, and the file is closed.

Seven Incidents per Week
The number of reported incidents dropped sharply after 2007, from more than 3,500 to less than 1,600 in 2008. That was due, in part, to new rules intended to protect civilians — but also because Iraqi security forces, instead of Americans, had taken over an increasing number of checkpoints. “Escalation of force” incidents by Iraqi troops are not often reported by the US military.

Checkpoints were often the scene of deadly gun battles. One report, from August 2004, describes a shootout between Iraqi police and the Iraqi national guard at a checkpoint in Babil province.

At 1750D, an ING convoy coming from the Ad-Diwaniyah did not stop at an IPs CP at grid MA 455 958. The ING opened fire on the IPs. 3X IPs were WIA, though not seriously. The commander of the Al Hillah PS and 1BG commander went to the spot immediately. After a short negotiation the ING convoy left. Then the IPs fired a few bursts at the last vehicle of the convoy.

Dozens of other so-called “green-green” incidents — Iraqi forces attacking one another — are scattered throughout the reports. The altercations typically involve soldiers from different branches of Iraq’s fragmented security services.

The reasons for the violence are often unclear. In February 2006, the Iraqi army stopped a vehicle carrying soldiers from the “public order brigades” (POB), a paramilitary force under the interior ministry. One of the POB soldiers was shot and killed; US forces investigating the shooting never did find out why.

Dozens of other reports document violent “escalations of force” between Iraqi security forces and the civilians they are supposed to protect. In July 2005, the Iraqi special police shot and killed an Iraqi pedestrian who did not stop at a checkpoint in Baghdad. They insisted that he was an attempted suicide bomber — until his family arrived and explained otherwise.

The LN family arrived and stated he is not AIF but mentally retarded. ISP [sic] still believed the IND was a suicide bomber. The family members moved forward to the LN and rolled him over exposing his abdomen. The LN had no suicide vest.

The US military started taking these incidents seriously in 2006, when General Peter Chiarelli — the then number-two military officer in Iraq — promised to investigate every one that resulted in casualties.

The reports also suggest that the US military understated the number of civilian casualties in “escalation of force” incidents. The US-based McClatchy newspaper group reported in July 2007 that the army said 429 Iraqi civilians were killed or wounded in the previous year. But the reports released by Wikileaks place that figure higher, at 567, a 32 per cent difference.

Similarly, in June 2006, Chiarelli claimed that checkpoint killings had been reduced to roughly one per week, down from seven per week a year prior.

The leaked reports, though, show that 73 civilians were killed in “escalation of force” incidents in the five months before Chiarelli made that claim. That means an average of 3.5 civilians were killed each week in those incidents — better than 2005’s average, but more than three times worse than Chiarelli’s claim.

And the incidents have continued, at a pace of at least one per week, through the end of 2009, when the documents released by Wikileaks terminate.

Escalation of Force
The rules of engagement in Iraq require soldiers and marines to cycle through a range of escalating warnings for vehicles that behave erratically at checkpoints or venture too close to patrols.

Verbal commands and hand signals to stop, plus other cues, like flashing lights and horns;

Warning shots, generally fired in front of the vehicle;

“Disabling shots,” aimed first at the vehicle’s engine block, and then at the driver.

Reading the Documents
Glossary: Military jargon
Editor’s note: About the documents

Death at a Checkpoint
The tragic story of Nabiha Jassim, a pregnant woman who was killed by US troops as she rushed to hospital to give birth.
Andrew Wander / Al Jazeera

B/3-187 reported that a white 2X door hatchback vehicle entered the coalition forces (CF) only lane in close proximity to the OP inherently forcing soldiers manning battle positions (BPs) to increase their force protection level to safeguard personnel and equipment. B/3-187 reported that the soldiers graduated their levels of response to the threat perceived by the vehicles movement toward CF resulting in disabling shots being fired to bring the vehicle to a halt before it could reach CF positions at the BPs and within the OP.

(October 22, 2010) — This [was] the US military’s record of the death of a pregnant woman shot by its soldiers at checkpoint while on her way to give birth at a maternity hospital.

Nabiha Jassim was 35 years old when she was killed in the town of Samarra, 110km north of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. She was being rushed to hospital by her brother, Khalid, when their car approached a US military checkpoint and observation post that had recently been set up. It was a journey the family would never complete.

The Iraq war files reveal that US troops manning the checkpoint believed that Nabiha’s car posed a threat. As the vehicle carrying the family approached the checkpoint, the soldiers opened fire. Nabiha was killed in the hail of bullets that ripped through the car, shattering the windscreen and leaving Khalid badly cut. Her cousin, Saliha Hassan, 57, was also shot dead in the incident, which left the road covered in blood and broken glass.

Nabiha’s body was rushed to the hospital in an effort to save her baby, but the unborn child died in her womb. Had she reached the hospital safely, she would have given birth to a boy.

Her story is just one of the hundreds of human tragedies that are catalogued in the Iraq war logs, which reveal that over the course of the conflict, almost 700 civilians were killed in more than 14,000 violent incidents that took place at US military checkpoints.

These so-called “escalation of force” incidents follow a repetitive and deadly pattern. An Iraqi civilian approaches a US checkpoint, fails to understand soldiers’ demands to stop, and is shot dead after being assessed as a threat to the platoon manning the checkpoint.

Just as repetitive is the US military response to such incidents: they are put down as a sort of collateral damage, seen as part of the inevitable cost of conflict, as victims of the accidents that happen under the fog of war.

After Nabiha’s death, the military said that the vehicle had entered a “clearly defined prohibited area” when they opened fire on it. The war log makes no warning of any warning given to Khalid as he drove his sister and cousin towards their deaths, and he has said none was given.

“I was driving my car at full speed because I did not see any sign or warning from the Americans. It was not until they shot the two bullets that killed my sister and cousin that I stopped,” he told the Associated Press news agency, shortly after the incident.

A brief statement was issued by military authorities in the aftermath of the incident that said: “US forces killed two women by mistake… when they were heading to a maternity hospital.”

At the time of Nabiha’s death, US soldiers in Iraq were facing intense and regular attacks on the country’s roads. Checkpoints had been targeted by gunmen and suicide bombers on a regular basis. There is no suggestion that her killing was anything other than a deadly mistake. But for the friends and families of the innocent Iraqis mistakenly killed at US military checkpoints, knowing that their deaths were not intentional is scant consolation when such mistakes were repeated again and again.

Expressions of regret from the US military, however well-intentioned, are worth little to ordinary Iraqis if no lessons were learned from mistakes that had such devastating consequences.

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