Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Volume 3,  Number 39               November 2 - 8, 2003            Quezon City, Philippines

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The Other Casualties

By Jonathan Darman

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American casualties are the ugly benchmark of the occupation of Iraq. Military or political authorities who claim progress in the reconstruction risk grisly contradiction when another soldier's death is announced. Yet while many Americans think any U.S. blood is too precious to spill, Iraqi blood is a murkier topic.

At the height of the war, there was little discussion of Iraqi civilian deaths--military leaders didn't always talk about them, journalists didn't always ask. But almost six months after George W. Bush declared major combat operations over, Iraqi civilians are still being killed.

History tells us that the death of a few innocents is the inevitable price of peace. But in a discomforting new report, the humanitarian group Human Rights Watch claims that American troops often use excessive or indiscriminate force against Iraqi civilians. The group claims that Coalition forces have killed 94 Iraqis in potentially unlawful circumstances since the Bush announcement in May. While these deaths may not dominate American headlines, the report's author, Fred Abrahams, says their significance should not be overlooked. Abrahams told NEWSWEEK's Jonathan Darman that to promote security in Iraq, Americans must win the hearts and minds of Iraqis. Before they can do that, Abrahams says, they must prove that Iraqis don't have to be afraid.

NEWSWEEK: You say in your report that 94 Iraqi civilians have died in "questionable circumstances" since President Bush declared the end of major combat operations in May. How do you define "questionable circumstances"?

Fred Abrahams: Our guideline here is the Geneva Convention. According to the rules of war, the United States, or Coalition forces, as the occupying power, must use lethal force only when absolutely necessary--and when they do use it, it must be proportionate, discriminate and targeted. So in that sense, an unlawful death would be when there were other means aside from lethal force through which the problem could have been resolved. Soldiers are clearly coming under attack and they do have to respond with force, but that response has to be proportionate to the threat and targeted appropriately.

But you're not saying that all 94 of these deaths are unlawful. You're just suggesting the possibility that they might be.

That's correct. We confirmed 20 cases ourselves where we believe the evidence strongly suggests that the deaths were unlawful. In the 74 other cases, we received reports from various sources that we believe merit investigation. So we do not have the evidence to say clearly that all 94 of those cases were unlawful deaths, and we're not suggesting that. But we are suggesting that the initial reports are enough to merit an investigation.

What does it take to determine conclusively that a civilian was killed unlawfully?

We're not claiming that we have the absolute truth. In the end, the military has to do an investigation--look at the ballistics and how many rounds were discharged from the soldier's weapon and all of these things that we don't have access to. But when we get three witnesses telling us that the guy was shot while his hands were in the air or that he was a shop owner that was 100 yards away from this incident, that's, for us, I think grounds to call for an investigation.

Is it even possible for the military to conduct the kind of investigation you're talking about? Do they still have evidence from some of these older incidents?

Even in the old cases, they could certainly do more than they're doing now. And that's really our charge here: they're doing, essentially, the absolute minimum. Only five cases [have been] investigated thus far, which is way below the amount that they should do, and also, I think, that they reasonably could do.

Why isn't the military investigating more of these cases?

I don't think that civilian casualties are very high on their list of priorities. They don't keep statistics. During the bombing campaign they paid verbal tribute to minimizing civilian casualties. But in the end it comes down to force protection--their No. 1 concern is minimizing U.S. soldier casualties. And we're certainly not saying that the military should put soldiers in harm's way. [But] this sort of overaggressive behavior of the soldiers is, in the end, putting them in more danger because it creates such resentment--if not even new recruits for the so-called resistance--that in the end it makes Iraq a more hostile environment.

Is the military giving soldiers the impression that it's OK to kill civilians?

That's not an explicit message, but I think that's the message that soldiers, unfortunately, will take with them--that they will not be held accountable for their actions.

But who's responsible? The individual soldiers who are killing civilians or the military that's tolerating their actions?

Both. But my concern is more with the larger policy. Clearly you have some soldiers who are extremely professional, very culturally sensitive. And you have others who are, for lack of a better term, gung-ho. But the bigger problem is the atmosphere of impunity. The soldiers have to know that there's some review when there's an improper use of force. Without that knowledge, they feel free to pull the trigger at will. And accountability is the responsibility of the military authorities.

But don't you run a risk that if you have too many investigations going on, soldiers will become so paranoid about accusations of improperly used force they'll be afraid to use any force at all?

That's a legitimate argument. That's why we've concentrated our recommendations on some practical steps that, I think, would not put soldiers too much in that sort of pre-emptively contemplative mode.

Like what?

For example, lights and signs at checkpoints, having interpreters with you on raids, informing civilians how they're expected to behave at checkpoints through public-service campaigns.

Wouldn't military authorities claim that they're already doing all of those things?

Well, some of the things they are doing. For instance, there are more interpreters on raids now. There have been improvements. But I think it's still got a long way to go.

Is it true that British troops are better than the Americans at dealing with civilians?

The anecdotal argument is that the British have this experience of Northern Ireland. [They are] apparently better prepared to deal with [an] occupation environment. They also have a colonial history in Iraq and tend to understand Iraq's culture and language in a deeper way than American soldiers. The comparison I can make is with Kosovo, where you had British soldiers after the war with Yugoslavia roaming through Kosovo in soft uniforms, smoking cigarettes and drinking beers in local bars. And Americans were roaming around in flack jackets and full body armor with M-16s at their shoulder. And that was Kosovo, where you had a sort of friendly environment.

But no matter what approach you take, aren't civilian casualties inevitable where there are guerrilla attacks coming out of a civilian population?

This insurgency, guerrilla force, whatever you want to call it--for sure, they couldn't care less about civilians. Some of their attacks are even targeting civilians, such as the bombing of the U.N. or the bombing of the mosque in Najaf. No one is saying there won't be this kind of collateral damage. But the language of international law says "minimize." And that's really what we're talking about, is taking all steps possible to reduce and minimize the impact on civilians.

Do you think the average American cares about Iraqi civilian casualties?

Not enough. This is a far-off war and there's a lot of coverage, justifiably so, of service people who've been killed. The media could do a better job of humanizing this story.

Why aren't news organizations covering civilian casualties in Iraq?

This is such a fast-moving story that they don't have time to conduct the in-depth investigations that we did. There's always a new issue, there's something political or there's something securitywise--every day, service people are getting attacked. That's one of the problems. And the second one is that they know what readers and viewers want to see, and that's about American lives. I do understand that. But I believe the American press hasn't been as good on this as, let's say, the British press, which tends to take a more critical eye and bring some of these stories to life.

One of the questionable practices you highlight in the report involves U.S. troops putting their feet on the heads of detained Iraqis to keep them down. Why is that such a hot-button issue?

I think that's a reflection of a poor cultural understanding. Essentially it's a grave insult to show your foot or to touch the bottom of your foot to someone's head. I don't think the soldiers mean anything by it, it's maybe even standard operating procedure: when you have someone down, if they're struggling at all, you put your boot on their head. But you have no idea what kind of intense anger it's causing because Iraqis don't know that Americans don't know. They think that it's on purpose and for them it's a deep humiliation, a really serious offence.

Were the people that you spoke to in Iraq afraid of U.S. troops?

The people that I spoke to, were and had reason to be afraid. And furious, some of them were really furious. Others weren't, some people said, "this happened, I just want my compensation."

Is compensation a realistic possibility?

Yeah, compensation is happening. The Foreign Claims Act allows foreign citizens to request compensation for everything from a car accident to a blown window to a loss of life. The complication with this is the so called combat-exclusion. By law, you can't give money for any incident that "was part of a combat operation." And that's where the Army is denying a lot of requests because they say a checkpoint is a combat operation or a raid was a combat operation. But so far they've given out over $1 million.

What kind of cooperation did you get from the military when you were compiling your report?

Mixed. On the policy level, the cooperation was excellent. We met with officials from the Judge Advocate General's office and the Coalition Provisional Authority to lay out some of the legal arguments and some of the larger policy issues. And they were very helpful. On the case level, the cooperation was more mixed. In some incidents we were able to get the military's version and in some instances we weren't When I visited the 82d Airborne Second Brigade, they asked us to submit our requests in writing and they promised to respond. We did that and never heard back. So it was hit or miss, I'd say.

If you could think of three changes the military could make right away to decrease the frequency of civilian casualties, what would they be?

No. 1 is keep numbers, to the best of their ability. Two is actively investigate them. I mean, at least take the initial steps to determine whether a full-fledged investigation is required. Not just chatting with your soldier but interviewing witnesses, collecting some basic ballistic evidence and so forth. No. 3--the one that I hark back to is this public-information campaign. The rules of engagement are secret for security reasons. But Iraqis have the right to know how they can avoid bumbling into death. So you don't have to exchange what the rules of engagement are at a checkpoint, but they should at least know how they're expected to behave, what will be interpreted by soldiers as aggressive behavior. I think that can be communicated through better signs, through better PR, through the media, advertising and so forth. They've done some of that but it just hasn't been good enough.

October 2003


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