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
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
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
But you're not saying that all 94
of these deaths are unlawful. You're just suggesting the possibility that they
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
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
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
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
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
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
Is compensation a realistic
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