U.S. aims to curtail civilian casualties

Minimizing such harm part of plans for Iraq war

March 05, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Aware that Saddam Hussein is placing key military equipment in civilian areas, Pentagon planners are mounting a far-reaching effort to lessen noncombatant casualties with high-tech targeting equipment, unmanned surveillance aircraft and smaller bombs.

"There will be inevitable civilian casualties up front," said a senior Pentagon official, especially in the first few days of the expected fast-paced war with Iraq when several thousand precision bombs and missiles from American combat aircraft and warships are likely to rain down on targets in Baghdad and other urban areas.

Further complicating the planning are the "human shields," the scores of activists who are hoping to prevent a war and are arriving in Baghdad from the United States and Europe to stand near government and civilian facilities.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday that he didn't know how many noncombatants would lose their lives in a second Iraq war. "Large numbers of civilians, hopefully, will not die," Myers told reporters.

A day earlier, President Bush, in an interview with The Sun and other newspapers, said, "We will do everything we can to minimize the loss of life, not only American lives but Iraqi civilian lives."

During the 1991 Persian Gulf war, about 3,500 civilians were killed, according to Sarah Sewall, who served as the Clinton administration's deputy assistant secretary of defense for peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance. During the U.S.-led campaign against Serbian forces in Kosovo in 1999, about 500 civilians were killed, while 800 to 1,500 civilians were killed in the Afghanistan campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida forces, she said.

Sewall said yesterday that the Pentagon does not view reducing collateral damage as part of its central mission.

The Defense Department "as a whole, I would say, is doing poorly on this," said Sewall, program director at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. "They look at collateral damage as a [public relations] issue to be managed, and should look at it as a fundamental operational issue to be solved."

The potential for civilian casualties appears greater than in the gulf war, when a U.S.-led coalition ejected Hussein's troops from Kuwait. This time, the goal is Hussein, who is likely to burrow deep into Baghdad and perhaps resort to urban warfare to try to thwart efforts to oust him, officials said.

A senior Defense Department official recently showed pictures of what he described as Iraqi combat aircraft and ammunition being placed near food warehouses, mosques and schools. While Hussein used similar tactics during the gulf war, such efforts are "growing considerably," the official said.

Pentagon officials say they are particularly troubled that Hussein is placing in civilian areas communications equipment that would allow him to direct his ground forces and air defense commanders.

"They are extremely significant command and control targets," said one official, noting that such communications facilities are being set up in or moved to civilian areas in Baghdad and other locations, including the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

Some officials say that with war looming, they are particularly worried because of the intense anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and Hussein's apparent attempt to slow a U.S.-led military campaign by placing civilians in front of his military machine to create what is known as "collateral damage."

"That leaves us in a position to spend a lot of effort and a lot of time and a lot of energy to select the right ordnance delivered from the right direction, because the U.S. is going to do everything to minimize collateral damage," said one officer familiar with the targeting plans.

A mistaken attack that leads to scores of civilians killed or even a strike on a legitimate military target that results in deaths of noncombatants could further inflame Muslims in the region, officials said.

Gulf war incident

Moreover, Hussein hopes that a large number of civilian deaths will create an international incident similar to the one after the Feb. 1991 attack by U.S. aircraft on the Al Firdos military bunker in Baghdad, officials said.

Although U.S. war planners knew the bunker was being used as an Iraqi intelligence and secret police command site, they said they were unaware that civilians were housed there. The attack with two 2,000-pound, laser-guided bombs killed about 400 civilians, mostly women and children, and resulted in a suspension of air attacks over the city for nearly a week.

"What followed this incident? A very intense campaign by Iraq to highlight the civilian losses," said a defense official, "but no mention was ever made of the command function of this bunker." The Iraqi regime brought CNN and other news organizations to the site to record the carnage.

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