Thursday, June 26, 2008

Trigger happy troops and Iraqi civilian casualties

As media analysts have noted, the Iraq war has been falling off the front pages lately, no doubt a combination of apathy, "war fatigue" (a malady often suffered by those who don't have to fight), and absorption in the presidential campaign. Thus I doubt if very many people even bother reading stories like this one in today's New York Times entitled "8 Civilians Killed in 2 Disputed Attacks, Iraq Says." But I think it would be worth it to take a closer look at the article, because when the incidents it relates are magnified hundreds or thousands of times it becomes easier to understand why even the very lowest contested estimates of Iraqi civilian casulaties are in the tens of thousands. It also provides insights into the trigger-happy nature of the American presence.

So let's reorganize the article and juxtapose the conflicting accounts. The first concerns a car with 3 people inside that was shot at as it passed a convoy near the Baghdad airport. Here is the American version of events:

In the shooting near the Baghdad Airport, one of the most tightly guarded locations in Iraq, the American military said “three criminals” fired at soldiers about 8:40 a.m. while their convoy was stopped on the side of the road.

“The soldiers returned fire, which resulted in the vehicle running off the road and striking a wall,” the military said in a written statement. “The vehicle then exploded.” The attack left bullet holes in two of the convoy vehicles, the military said, and a weapon was found in the car, though the statement did not say whether the holes matched the caliber of that weapon.

Now here is the Iraqi version:

Officials at the hospital identified the charred bodies of the dead as those of Hafed Abdul Mahdi, director of the bank at the airport, and Surur Shadid Ahmed and Maha Adnan Yunis, women who worked at the bank.

So when the U.S. military stated that "three criminals" fired on American troops, they are referring to the director of the bank and two employees. Had they robbed their own bank and were making their getaway? We can't be sure, because this brief report does not specify whether they were driving towards or away from the bank (of course they may have been on their way to the bank to rob it.) An alternative scenario might be that they lived double lives as bank employees and insurgent terrorists.

On to the second incident, in which an American helicopter fired missiles into a home in Tikrit. Again, the U.S. version:

The American military confirmed an airstrike had taken place, but said an “Al Qaeda terrorist” had fired at the service members. Soldiers surrounded the building where the man was hiding and called for him to come out, the military said, but after perceiving “hostile intent,” they called in the airstrike.

American soldiers and Iraqi police determined that the man had been killed but did not find other victims, the military said. Four women in a neighboring building “sustained only minor injuries,” the military said.

Now for the Iraqi version: American helicopter fired missiles into a home near Tikrit, killing a family of five, local officials and a relative said.

The episode began when Afar Ahmed Zidan thought he heard thieves prowling near his home in the darkness, a cousin, Hussain al-Azawi, said. Mr. Zidan went outside and fired at them, Mr. Azawi said.

But the men in the darkness turned out to be American infantrymen conducting a search, Mr. Azawi said. They returned fire, wounding Mr. Zidan, who rushed inside and frantically called his cousin to alert him to what had happened, Mr. Azawi said. Then the Americans called in an airstrike that killed Mr. Zidan, his wife and three children, all under 10 years old, Mr. Azawi said.

“The Americans shot two rockets into the house,” he said. The rocket strike also wounded three of Mr. Zidan’s neighbors, who were taken to a hospital, he said.

Officials from the local council in Tikrit, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, said Wednesday that they believed five people had been killed in the American airstrike, and that they had sent a representative to attend the funerals.

Well, this one could have been an honest misunderstanding--but if the soldiers had the house surrounded, why did they need to call in an airstrike, thus killing an entire family, if the Iraqi version is to be believed? Could they not have made some local inquiries about who was in the house?

Indeed, one gets the impression after each of these kinds of episodes that the U.S. military simply makes up stories to cover their tracks (how, for example, do they figure out so soon after such an event that the gunman was from Al Qaeda? Do the terrorists have Al Qaeda membership cards in their wallets? Or do they wear Al Qaeda team sweaters?) Especially telling is that in almost every single case, the American account is contradicted not by reporters interviewing members of Al Qaeda, but local and national Iraqi officials--you know, the people on our side.

Anyone who has followed the Iraq war closely knows that such incidents are daily occurrences. And yet they do not seem to have sparked any changes in the "rules of engagement" for U.S. soldiers, which seem to consist of calling in airstrikes on civilian homes first and asking questions later. So much for "winning hearts and minds."

PS--Next time you see one of these stories in the press, read it carefully all the way through. You will find out more about what is really going on in Iraq than in all the General Petraeus press conferences put together.

PPS--The article I linked to in the lead of this post is a piece in the American Journalism Review titled "Whatever Happened to Iraq?" by AJR senior contributing writer Sherry Ricchiardi. I would urge you to read it.

Image: Iraq Body Count.

Update (June 30): According to today's New York Times, there has been another such incident of civilian deaths and criticism of recent U.S. actions by the Iraqi government.

Update (July 28): A month later, the U.S. miliary has now been forced to admit that the car in which bank employees were riding was, in fact, a car in which bank employees were riding.

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