‘N.Y. Times’ Documents The Killing of a Civilian in Fallujah

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By: E&P Staff

[NOTE: The original version of this story concluded by wondering why the incident documented here, while observed by a New York Times reporter and photographer, did not appear in the newspaper for eight days. Actually, it did appear earlier, as the note to us from reporter Edward Wong, now included at the end of this article, makes clear.]

One day after quoting a Marine commander’s claim that not a single civilian had been killed in the assualt on Fallujah, The New York Times on Saturday, as if responding to the challenge, came up with at least one example.

It also noted that this was “just one incident in which civilians were reported wounded or killed during the weeklong Fallujah offensive. While no neutral group has been able to enter the city to count casualties, officials of the International Red Cross in Baghdad estimate that as many as 800 civilians may have died.”

Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, commander of the First Marine Expeditionary Force, had made the statement on Thursday about the absence of civilian casualties.

The Times story Saturday by Edward Wong told of a Fallujah family trying to make a quick dash to safety in their car, to reach a house near a mosque on Nov. 12. A “barrage of bullets” from marine snipers and gunners in the mosque hit the car, killing a woman, seriously injuring her daughter, and slightly wounding three men.

The Marines, according to Wong, were operating under rules of engagement that allow them to respond to “unauthorized movement of civilian vehicles” that may constitute suicide bomb threats. But it also noted that the same rules tell marines to “spare civilians and civilian property, if possible.”

According to Wong, after the shooting, one of the wounded men in the car emerged waving a white towel. Several marines and Iraqi soldiers raced out to check on the casualties, accompanied by a reporter and photographer for The New York Times.

“Don’t shoot!” the man with the towel yelled. “I have a family with me. There are women in the car.”

“Just shoot him,” two Iraqi soldiers said, according to Wong. But the Americans held off.

A picture of the aftermath of the incident, by Times photographer Ashley Gilbertson, accompanies the story. There was no explanation of why the story did not run until eight days after the fatal incident.

Letter to the editors of Editor & Publisher from Edward Wong in Baghdad:

I’m writing to correct an error in your article titled, “NY Times Documents Killing of Civilian in Falluja,” published on Nov. 20. The article recounted a story I wrote about an Iraqi woman, Sahar, whose mother was killed on Nov.
12 by American Marines during the seige of Falluja.

The final paragraph in your story implies that our newspaper, for whatever reason, decided to hold off on reporting on the incident when our embedded reporter, Dexter Filkins, and our embedded photographer, Ashley Gilbertson, first witnessed its aftermath.

You wrote: “A picture of the aftermath of the incident, by Times photographer Ashley Gilbertson, accompanies the story. There was no explanation of why the story did not run until eight days after the fatal incident.”

In fact, this incident was documented in several paragraphs in a story that carried Mr. Filkins’ byline on Nov. 13. He provides a first-hand account of the aftermath of the shooting. Some of the material in my article (the
recounting of the reaction of the Iraqi soldiers, for example) comes directly from Mr. Filkins’ story. Furthermore, the paper ran on Nov. 13 two photographs taken by Mr. Gilbertson of the incident, one on the front
page, and one on the inside.

Days later, we encountered Sahar purely by coincidence while searching the hospitals of Baghdad for civilians who had been injured in Falluja. When she began telling her story, I recognized it as the same incident that Mr.
Filkins had written about earlier. The details in the earlier story differ somewhat than those in the second article for various reasons. But the two stories are about the same fatal shooting.

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