By: The Associated Press
They’re told every day across Iraq – tragic stories of people dying in hails of gunfire, shattered windshields and car seats covered in blood.
Friendly fire – often at U.S. military checkpoints – is taking a toll on the United States and its allies, as the shooting deaths of an Italian intelligence agent and a Bulgarian soldier highlight the terrifying reality of Iraqi roads.
“They’re just cowboys,” an infuriated Abdullah Mohammed said Monday of U.S. troops who killed his brother Feb. 28 in Ramadi. Mohammed said his brother edged too close to an American patrol. “They killed him without any reason, they suddenly shot at his car.”
Weary of suicide car bombers, U.S. military vehicles in Iraq carry signs in Arabic warning civilians to keep a distance or risk “deadly force.” Similar warnings are affixed to fortified, tank-manned U.S. checkpoints around the capital.
In a country where insurgents strike daily, there’s no doubt some of the force is justified. But Iraqi civilians are getting tangled up in the violence as well, at an alarming rate.
Yarmouk hospital – just one of several large medical facilities in Baghdad – receives several casualties a day from such shootings, said Dr. Mohamed Salaheddin.
On Saturday, American soldiers fired on a civilian vehicle in Baghdad, killing a woman and wounding her husband, said Iqbal Sabban, a police officer.
But both sides are often to blame, she said. “Soldiers carry signs asking people to stay away, but people are sometimes careless,” Sabban said. “The Americans are sometimes jittery and open fire at civilians just like that.”
While shooting deaths of Iraqi civilians are so common they’re rarely reported in the media, deaths of foreigners can grab headlines and increase pressure on America’s allies to pull out.
On Friday night, U.S. troops raked a car with gunfire that was carrying Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena to Baghdad’s international airport, wounding her and killing an Italian intelligence officer who’d just negotiated her release from insurgents.
The Bush administration described the shooting as a “horrific accident” that came after soldiers at a particularly dangerous checkpoint tried to motion to the speeding car to stop, thinking it may have been carrying suicide attackers.
The White House rejected Sgrena’s claim that American soldiers gave no warning before they opened fire and that soldiers may have targeted her car because the United States opposes Italy’s policy of negotiating with kidnappers.
“It’s absurd to make any such suggestion that our men and women in uniform would deliberately target innocent civilians,” countered spokesman Scott McClellan.
He said the airport road “has been a place where suicide car bombers have launched attacks. It’s been a place where (former Saddam Hussein) regime elements have fired upon coalition forces. It is a dangerous road and it is a combat zone that our coalition forces are in. Oftentimes, they have to make split-second decisions to protect their own security.”
That same day, a Bulgarian soldier was shot to death with a machine gun. Bulgarian Defense Minister Nikolai Sviranov said Monday that coalition forces likely shot the soldier by accident.
Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov summoned the American ambassador, James Pardew, and complained about the lack of coordination among coalition troops. And Svinarov insisted “the coalition partners undertake emergency measures to improve coordination.”
In both Bulgaria and Italy, the deaths sparked debate over keeping troops in Iraq. Bulgaria has a 460-member infantry battalion in Iraq; Italy has deployed about 3,000 soldiers.
A U.S. spokesman, Marine Sgt. Salju Thomas, said “every incident where there is a loss of life or injury would be investigated,” at least those involving U.S. troops and civilians.
“If there was an actual law of war or rule-of-engagement violation, the service member involved would be prosecuted, it depends of course if it was negligence or premeditated,” he said.
Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Pentagon spokesman, said the rules of engagement at checkpoints in Iraq are built around the concept of “escalation of force.” Soldiers are taught to warn a potentially threatening vehicle before shooting at it.
Soldiers who shoot at vehicles are told to try to disable it by hitting the engine block, he said. But routine guard duty can turn into deadly combat with lightning speed, and soldiers often must make split-second decisions.
Venable said the rules are “a guide to help our soldiers bear the responsibility of pulling the trigger or not.”
Asked if rules of engagement changed after the Italian agent was killed, Thomas said: “I can’t discuss rules of engagement for operational security. But we’re constantly evaluating our procedures.”
The debate is like that in the West Bank and Gaza, where Israeli troops have repeatedly shot at approaching cars, causing injuries and death. Later accounts often differ about whether a driver behaved suspiciously.
There, as in Iraq, the shootings underscored the dangers facing civilians and soldiers, and bolstered claims that the military was not in full control.
In Iraq, an Interior Ministry official said police have published newspaper ads warning drivers to keep away from convoys and not to pass them. Police tell citizens to turn on hazard lights when approaching checkpoints at night.
Most drivers have learned to keep back.
On the airport road, lines of U.S. Humvees inch along, snarling traffic. A hundred yards back, a three-vehicle-wide front-line of civilian traffic moves uneasily along.
“It’s a real crime when U.S. forces open their fire toward innocent people,” Salaheddin said. “They leave families in deep sorrow, they leave them helpless.”