Drive and die
U.S. Checkpoints Raise Ire in Iraq
By JOHN F. BURNS
Published: March 7, 2005
BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 6 - When an Italian journalist was driven up Baghdad's airport road toward an American military checkpoint on Friday night, she was driving into a situation fraught with hazards thousands of Iraqis face every day.
The journalist, Giuliana Sgrena, 56, ran into fierce American gunfire that left her with a shrapnel wound to her shoulder and killed the Italian intelligence agent sitting beside her in the rear seat. She had been released only 35 minutes earlier by Iraqi kidnappers who had held her hostage for a month, and the car carrying them to the airport was driving in pitch dark.
But the conditions for the journey, up a road that is considered the most dangerous in Iraq, were broadly the same as those facing all civilian drivers approaching American checkpoints or convoys. American soldiers operate under rules of engagement that give them authority to open fire whenever they have reason to believe that they or others in their unit may be at risk of suicide bombings or other insurgent attacks.
Next to the scandal of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, no other aspect of the American military presence in Iraq has caused such widespread dismay and anger among Iraqis, judging by their frequent outbursts on the subject. Daily reports compiled by Western security companies chronicle many incidents in which Iraqis with no apparent connection to the insurgency are killed or wounded by American troops who have opened fire on suspicion that the Iraqis were engaged in a terrorist attack.
The spokesman, as well as a senior Pentagon official who discussed the issue in Washington on Sunday, said official statements issued after the Friday shooting offered a broad outline of the rules. In those statements, the military said it tried to slow Ms. Sgrena's vehicle with hand signals, flashing lights and warning shots before firing into the car's engine block.
But many Iraqis tell of being fired on with little or no warning.
Basman Fadhil, 29, a taxi driver interviewed Sunday in Baghdad, described driving home to the southern Doura neighborhood on Jan. 13. The power was out, as it often is in the capital, and the streets were very dark. He was only a block or so from his house when bullets shattered his windshield. "I thought it was thieves trying to steal my car, so I drove faster," he said.
One bullet struck him in the shoulder, causing him to crash into a concrete barrier. Getting out of the badly damaged vehicle, he staggered a few steps until American and Iraqi soldiers began yelling at him from the darkness not to move. When he asked the soldiers why they had shot at him, Mr. Fadhil said, they told him there had been gunmen in the area shortly before.
The military spokesman in Baghdad said the rules of engagement were written and issued by senior commanders in the 150,000-member American force here, and submitted for higher approval by the United States Central Command, which controls American military activities across the Middle East. The rules are passed down the chain of command, and thoroughly explained to every soldier operating a checkpoint or manning weapons in any vehicles in a convoy, the spokesman said.
Because the rules are intended to protect soldiers coming under immediate attack, no telephone or radio calls to higher command are required before soldiers may put them into effect. "Rules of engagement are standing orders," he said. "These are briefed all the way down to the lowest level."
"Everybody knows what they are," he said. "They are automatic."
Ms. Sgrena and her companions were not the only Western civilians to have come under American fire, according to a series of unclassified government reports that receive extremely restricted circulation, copies of which have been made available to The Times. The reports outline at least six incidents since December in which American troops have fired on vehicles carrying Westerners in the area around the airport.
The reports chronicled one incident in January at a checkpoint near the airport road when an American soldier fired at a car even though it was moving slowly and the driver was holding his identification card in plain sight out of the window. The soldier finally waved the car away and forced it to drive down the wrong side of a road.
THEY DO THIS EVERY DAY.
posted by Steve @ 2:50:00 AM