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September 2003 • Vol 3, No. 8 •

Civilian Deaths Stoke Iraqis’ Resentment

By Vivienne Walt

It was 10:30 p.m. on a sweltering night in late June when 12-year-old Mohammed Al-Kubaisa climbed the concrete steps leading to the roof of his family’s house.

The boy held two blankets, so he and his identical twin brother, Moustafa, could curl up together for the night, one of their favorite summer habits. Mohammed had just reached the top, when he turned to watch the military maneuvers on the street below: American soldiers patrolling with rifles. One soldier looked up in the darkness and saw a figure on the roof, watching him.

A single shot exploded into the air, slamming into Mohammed’s chest.

In the chaos that followed, Mohammed’s mother, Wafa Abdul Latif, recalls dragging her son inside and holding the screaming boy as his blood poured onto the floor. She says Mohammed was struggling to breathe when a group of American soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division slammed through the front door and pushed her aside to search the house for hostile gunmen.

“There were two patrols walking from different directions,” Latif, 44, said in her living room as she clutched a large framed portrait of Mohammed. “One group thought the shot had come from inside the house.”

Mohammed’s death on June 26 is an almost forgotten incident as daily attacks by armed insurgents continue to dog the Americans trying to pacify Iraq. More than 50 U.S. soldiers have been killed in hostilities since May 1, when President Bush declared an end to the war’s major combat operations.

But Iraqis say that the regularity of deaths in their own civilian population has drastically affected feelings regarding the U.S. occupation.

In numerous interviews, they warn that more than other factors—like widespread unemployment, fuel shortages and electricity blackouts—civilian casualties have hardened bitterness against U.S. soldiers, and could prolong or widen the armed resistance against them.

“It has increased our hate against Americans,” said Ali Hatem, 23, a computer science student at the University of Baghdad. “It also increases the violence against them. In Iraq we are tribal people. When someone loses their son, they want revenge.”

Numbers mounting

Neither the Iraqis nor the Americans keep statistics for dead civilians, but the numbers are clearly mounting.

At least three Iraqis were killed in west Baghdad’s elite Mansour district July 27, when U.S. soldiers from Task Force 20 opened fire on cars that overshot a military cordon. The drivers had apparently missed seeing the cordon when they turned into the area from an unblocked side street.

In other incidents, soldiers from the 82nd Airborne shot dead 13 Iraqi protesters in late April in the pro-Saddam Hussein city of Fallujah, 50 miles west of Baghdad. Soldiers fired on another demonstration June 18 at the gates of Baghdad’s Republican Palace, killing at least two people.

In both incidents, U.S. forces said they believed they were being fired upon from armed insurgents hidden in the crowd. Iraqi witnesses have denied the charge.

The death of young Mohammed was cited in a report released July 23 by Amnesty International, which the London-based organization presented to officials of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-dominated body that runs Iraq.

Amnesty said its researchers in Iraq had determined that U.S. forces were at times trigger-happy and were ill-prepared for policing Iraq.

“Coalition forces must abide by law enforcement standards and therefore use force in line with the principles of necessity and proportionality,” says the report. “They should use firearms only if lives are in danger and there is no other means to respond.”

U.S. officials express regrets that innocent people have been caught in the crossfire.

“I’m working very hard to ensure that with our tactics we aren’t alienating the Iraqi people,” Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said late last week.

No apologies

Some of the bereaved Iraqis say they are pained that U.S. soldiers have not offered apologies or compensation, or even attempted to comfort them. Iraqi traditions generally call for monetary compensation when a murder occurs, and among several tribes, a retaliatory killing is expected.

When asked whether his officers had apologized to the families of those killed during the botched Mansour raid, Sanchez replied: “Apologies are not something that we have as a normal procedure in the military processes.”

As for compensation, the Pentagon rejects nearly all claims in cases where Iraqis are mistakenly killed by U.S. soldiers during a combat operation. Under U.S. laws drafted during World War II, such cases fall under the so-called combat exclusion. Combat operations include foot patrols, like the one that killed young Mohammed.

“Our soldiers are conducting combat operations . . . and we are still engaged in (them),” Col. Marc Warren, judge advocate for the U.S. Army’s V Corps and the senior U.S. attorney in Iraq, said Sunday.

Warren said Mohammed’s death was nonetheless being investigated, because he was only 12.

Soldiers, in fact, did visit the boy’s family to express their regrets.

“They asked us what compensation we wanted,” said Latif. “My husband was incensed. He said he wanted 10 of their men to die in exchange.”

The couple said the Americans told them that one soldier had been arrested for Mohammed’s death, a claim denied by military spokesman Col. Guy Shields.

“The incident was investigated. Nobody was disciplined,” Shields said, adding that Mohammed’s death was simply an unfortunate accident of war.

The family insists the boy could have been saved that tragic night, had it not been for the unyielding soldiers at a checkpoint in the Hay Al-Jihad district of south Baghdad.

“I tried to rush him to the hospital in my car,” said a neighbor, Yaser Ala, 17. “They stopped us at the checkpoint because it was nearly curfew time. They said we could not go on, even though they saw Mohammed bleeding.” No civilian is permitted outdoors in Baghdad after 11 p.m., under a curfew imposed last April.

Ala drove back to the house, where Mohammed bled to death in the car.

Man shot holding car part

Another troubling incident involving the 82nd Airborne was the fatal shooting of 24-year-old Uday Ahmed on July 9.

That day, Uday was earning some money fixing his neighbor’s 1982 car. In search of a spare part, he walked a few blocks from his house in the southwest Baghdad district of Saidiya to an auto-repair yard.

While walking across the yard, he held the car’s distributor, a round metal object slightly bigger than a fist—roughly the size and shape of a hand grenade. He was clearly visible from the rooftop of the Dorah Police Station that abuts the repair yard. There, 82nd Airborne soldiers are posted around the clock behind sandbags, rifles at the ready.

From atop the roof, a soldier spotted Uday and fired. Details of what happened came from several witnesses who spoke three weeks after the incident.

“I heard the bang of a rifle shot and swung around,” said Ali Hassan, 40, who runs a falafel stand about 20 feet from where Uday stood. “This man was holding a car part. He doubled over bleeding and then glanced up. At that moment, a second shot came from the roof of the police station. It hit him and he dropped. There was blood everywhere.”

Moustafa Ahmed, Uday’s 28-year-old brother, displaying an autopsy report from Iraq’s Ministry of Health, said, “No Americans have visited us to speak about what happened. And we don’t feel we can go speak to them.”

The 82nd Airborne soldiers posted at the Dorah Police Station would not comment and referred a reporter to the division’s base two blocks away. Commanders refused to discuss the incident.

Young Mohammed’s twin brother, Moustafa, meanwhile, has left home to live with an aunt and her children. “I don’t want to be at home,” said the shy boy. “There is no one to play with anymore.”

San Francisco Chronicle, August 4, 2003





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