By Jim LobeOneWorld
June 17, 2003
A major U.S. human rights group charged Tuesday that the account given by the U.S. military of two protests that resulted in the deaths of 20 Iraqi demonstrators appears to be incorrect. It called for an independent and impartial investigation by U.S. authorities of the two incidents in al-Fallujah in central Iraq.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) challenged the military's contention that its troops came under direct fire in either of the April 28 and April 30 incidents. The group also took issue with the military's insistence that its soldiers responded with "precision fire" against what they assumed to be Iraqi gunmen.
Separately, Amnesty International reiterated its call for the UN Security Council to immediately deploy human rights monitors to Iraq.
In the six weeks since the fatal demonstrations al-Falluja, located about 35 miles west of Baghdad, has become a major center of resistance to the U.S. occupation. At least four U.S. soldiers have been killed in a series of guerrilla attacks, while many more have been injured.
"The U.S. military presence in al-Fallujah began with these tragic events in late April, and it has been troubled ever since," said Hanny Megally, director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa division. "What is needed is a thorough investigation of possible violations of international humanitarian law by U.S. troops."
Al-Fallujah, located in the heartland of Iraq's Sunni Muslim population, has emerged as a major source of concern to U.S. occupation forces, which last week conducted armed house-to-house searches for banned weapons and suspected rebels as part of Operation Desert Scorpion. The operation was combined with civic action projects, such as construction of a new soccer field for the 300,000 people who live there.
U.S. military officials say the town remains a stronghold for members of former President Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party, while the neo-conservative Weekly Standard, a major war booster, cited reports that these forces may have been joined by followers of the militant Islamic Wahabi faith to fight against the occupation.
But recent news reports--particularly in the wake of last week's campaign--suggest that U.S. actions in Al-Fallujah may themselves be helping those opposed to the occupation to recruit more followers.
"...U.S. soldiers battling small guerrilla cells linked to the ousted regime have had a hard time distinguishing between ordinary civilians and enemy fighters," the Wall Street Journal reported Monday from near the town. "The show of force [in Operation Desert Scorpion] so far has failed to stop the attacks, while many Iraqis say the tactics and resulting civilian casualties have raised support for America's foes."
The 18-page HRW report released today, "Violent Response: The U.S. Army in al-Fallujah," is based on interviews with soldiers, officers, townspeople and other witnesses, as well as an investigation of ballistic evidence at the scene of the two attacks.
According to the report, the town had been spared from the ground war in March and April, but had been bombed from the air, contributing to local resentment from the day U.S. soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division arrived April 23 and occupied a local school.
Five days later a demonstration called to protest the military presence in the town turned violent. According to the military, soldiers returned "precision fire" on gunmen in the crowd who were shooting at them. But the Iraqi protesters insist that the troops fired on them without provocation, killing 17 people and wounding more than 70, in what was the worst incident of its kind to date.
On April 30 a U.S. military convoy driving through the town in the midst of another demonstration opened fire on protesters, killing three and wounding at least 16 more. The soldiers said they thought they had come under fire, while the townspeople insisted that no shots had been fired from the Iraqi side. They admitted that rocks had been thrown at the army vehicles, breaking the window of a truck and injuring a soldier.
In the first incident HRW said it could find no conclusive evidence of bullet damage to the walls of the school where the soldiers were based, "placing into serious question the assertion that they had come under fire from individuals in the crowd," the report said.
Moreover, the group found extensive evidence of multi-caliber bullet impacts in the buildings across the street from the school that were not consistent with the U.S. contention that the troops responded with "precision fire." If not indiscriminate, the response in that incident was clearly excessive, HRW concluded.
In the second incident the circumstances and interviews with all parties suggested that, once again, U.S. troops responded with "disproportionate force," according to HRW.
Under international humanitarian law the United States, as the occupying power in Iraq, is obliged to ensure public order and safety and, when engaged in law-enforcement activities such as crowd control, should use lethal force only "when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life." At all times, they must act with restraint and in proportion to the seriousness of the threat posed.
The report, according to HRW, highlights some of the problems with putting a powerful combat force in a law-enforcement role, particularly when, as in this case, the troops involved had come straight from battle where they suffered casualties.
"Regardless of the possible responsibility of the individuals involved in the shooting that led to the killing of up to 20 and wounding of scores of others," the report said, "one conclusion is inescapable. U.S. military and political authorities who placed combat-ready soldiers in the highly volatile environment of al-Falluja without adequate law-enforcement training, translators, and crowd control devices (such as tear gas) followed a recipe for disaster."
Many critics of the U.S. campaign in Iraq have pointed to these incidents as evidence of major failures in U.S. post-war occupation planning, and the Pentagon has tried to improve its capacity for law enforcement by introducing thousands of military police with riot-control training--although they have so far been confined mainly to Baghdad.
Some of the same critics have assailed the Pentagon's leadership under the Bush administration for its aversion to allowing U.S. troops to participate in peacekeeping operations or learn peacekeeping skills. Last year, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cut off most of the funding of the Army War College's Peacekeeping Institute.
HRW stressed that it was still possible that U.S. troops had been fired on by provocateurs in either incident, but that it could not find the evidence. It also said it was unable to review intelligence and other classified information that could shed more light on the two incidents--all the more reason, it added, why a full investigation should be carried out.
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