Iraq war's hidden toll: civilians killed accidentally by U.S. troops

July 14, 2006|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- Several episodes of alleged atrocities by U.S. soldiers in Iraq are making headlines.

In the most sensational case, a half-dozen current and former troops are charged with raping a teenager in the town of Mahmoudiya, then killing her along with her family. In another awful tale, a unit of Marines is accused of killing 24 civilians in Haditha to avenge a comrade's death.

These horror stories - with the moral and political questions they raise - have grabbed our attention. But they are exceptions: Despite the stress on U.S. soldiers of repeated tours of duty in a misconceived war, deliberate murders of civilians are presumably rare.

What has remained under the radar screen, however, is the number of Iraqi civilians accidentally killed by coalition troops.

Americans have scant idea of how often such episodes occur. The Pentagon releases no figures on Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. fire. Each of these unsung civilian deaths creates enmity toward U.S. troops from the friends, family and tribe of the dead.

Just over a year ago, my translator, Yasser Salihee, was shot dead by an American soldier. Mr. Salihee, a 30-year-old doctor and aspiring journalist, was working for the Knight Ridder News Service to earn extra money. He was driving home after a haircut when a U.S. sniper mistook him for a potential car bomber. He couldn't stop in time and was shot between the eyes.

I arrived in Baghdad right after Mr. Salihee died and told his story to several Iraqi officials. The reactions were astonishing. Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdel Mahdi told me that an elderly friend of his had just been shot dead by U.S. soldiers. Kurdish parliamentarian Mahmoud Othman told me that he knew of 10 civilians who had suffered the same fate. Samir Sumaidaie, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations (recently appointed ambassador to the United States), complained bitterly to reporters that Marines had killed his unarmed, 21-year-old cousin.

These cases came to light because the victims were well connected. No one knows how many similar cases are never even reported. And armed civilian contractors there are notorious for shooting at Iraqi civilians with impunity.

American soldiers are understandably jittery at checkpoints or house searches. They have to make instant decisions in threatening situations. But until recently, procedures at checkpoints and roadblocks often have been murky. Mr. Salihee would still be alive if there had been a roadblock warning him to slow down.

When I wrote about his unnecessary death, I received some bizarre e-mail accusing me of undermining the military and coddling terrorists. The writers just didn't get it. Mistaken shootings of Iraqi civilians by U.S. troops are not just terrible tragedies; they also endanger American lives.

The second-ranking commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, does get it. In March, says The New York Times, he told his troops: "Every time we shoot at an Iraqi in this culture - a culture of revenge, a culture of honor - we stand the chance of taking someone who is sitting on the fence" and pushing him toward "the terrorists and the fighters."

General Chiarelli is trying to establish clearer rules to avoid confrontations between Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers - a much-overdue improvement. According to recent statistics compiled by the U.S. military in Baghdad, the number of Iraqi civilians killed at checkpoints, at roadblocks or alongside convoys has dropped to an average of one a week this year, down from one a day in 2005. Those figures seem very low, especially since many such deaths go unreported.

Last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki decried the "regular occurrence" of violence by U.S. troops against civilians. General Chiarelli's challenge is to get a handle on how many civilians are dying at the hands of U.S. soldiers and to get those numbers down.

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

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