Shooting deaths of innocent Iraqis must force checkpoint changes

July 05, 2005|By Trudy Rubin

BAGHDAD - As I prepared to leave for Iraq, I received a horrible phone message. Yasser Salihee, a wonderful young Iraqi doctor who was going to work with me as a translator, had been shot dead by a U.S. soldier in Baghdad.

The news was almost beyond comprehension. Dr. Yasser, as everyone called him, had left the low-paying medical profession to earn more money as a full-time employee of the Knight-Ridder Baghdad bureau. He had translated for me in January, and his enthusiasm and persistence made him a delight to work with. I'd been looking forward to meeting his wife and his beloved 2-year-old daughter.

But Dr. Yasser drove down the wrong street at the wrong time. Like so many other Iraqis, he became an innocent victim of war.

According to a military investigation, U.S. soldiers had sealed off three streets leading into an intersection to hunt for a sniper. But the fourth street, the one Dr. Yasser unwittingly drove into, had no roadblock to warn drivers off.

As Dr. Yasser drove toward the intersection, a U.S. sharpshooter apparently fired a warning shot at his tire. Perhaps they thought he was a suicide bomber. Dr. Yasser couldn't stop fast enough. He put his hand in front of his face as if for protection. Then the shooter fired one bullet through the windshield, hitting his fingers and penetrating his skull.

The U.S. military keeps no statistics on the mistaken killing of civilians. But every Iraqi I know has horror stories about episodes they have witnessed in which civilians were killed or nearly killed by U.S. troops.

Young American soldiers at checkpoints are jittery about potential suicide bombers. They must make instant decisions about whether to shoot, even at cars carrying women and children. Soldiers in U.S. convoys often threaten drivers who come too close to their vehicles. Civilian contractors working for the military are notorious for shooting first and driving off.

On my last visit, my driver, Salaam, saw a contractor convoy of black SUVs do a U-turn on a median strip and shoot a driver in the oncoming lane who failed to get out of their way quickly enough. The driver had a small child in the passenger seat.

Procedures at U.S. checkpoints are often murky, with hand signals Iraqis don't understand and shouted commands drowned out by traffic noise. Frightened Iraqis may speed up when a warning shot is fired.

This lack of clarity also increases the danger to U.S. soldiers. Every time a man, woman or child is killed at a checkpoint, their deaths stoke Iraqi anger at American troops.

Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari was killed at a U.S. checkpoint in March, just after he had just rescued an Italian hostage. U.S. military investigators recommended ways to make checkpoints safer for civilians and soldiers. They suggested posting large signs in Arabic and English to warn drivers, starting a public education campaign to warn Iraqis how to act at checkpoints, and installing speed bumps in front of checkpoints.

In mid-June, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists urged the Pentagon to implement the military's recommendations. It noted that three journalists and a media worker had been killed by soldiers at U.S. checkpoints. That was a week before Dr. Yasser was killed.

There was no initial U.S. military report of Dr. Yasser's death. But because he worked for an American news outlet that pushed for details, the Army did launch an investigation. Another Iraqi journalist was killed by U.S. soldiers last week.

If U.S. troops are going to remain in Iraq, the Pentagon must give more thought to lowering the number of innocents killed by soldiers. It should start by taking a more strategic approach to roadblocks and checkpoints. That would diminish the number of civilians who die on Baghdad's streets.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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