'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Sunday, July 27, 2008

UPDATE: Free Fire Zone Iraq 

On July 9th, I related the horrible killings of Hafd Abood and his two female colleagues by US troops on the Baghdad airport road. Of course, the US troops involved claimed that they responded to enemy fire:

The U.S. military issued a press release the day of the shooting. It said troops from the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, were stopped on the roadside when "criminals" traveling the road fired on them. When the soldiers fired back, the statement said, the car crashed against a wall and "exploded." Two of the U.S. vehicles had bullet holes and a weapon was found in the burned car according to the military.

The statement provokes anger from Hafd Abood's friends and relatives and, at the very least, leaves many questions unanswered. Those killed were all longtime bank workers on their usual morning commute. The spot where the shooting occurred is supposed to be one of the safest in Iraq.

Even Newsweek considered this account dubious at the time of the incident, a skepticism that was apparently well founded:

In a statement issued late Sunday, the American military said that “a thorough investigation determined that the driver and passengers were law-abiding citizens of Iraq.” It added that the soldiers were not at fault for the killings because they had fired warning shots and exercised proper “escalation of force” measures before they opened fire on the people in the car.

But the findings called into question the way the military handled the aftermath of the shootings.

For example, a key assertion of the news release issued by the military on the day of the killings was that “a weapon was recovered from the wreckage.” But the military said Sunday that no one claimed to have found a weapon in the car or had seen a weapon taken from it.

Instead, one of the soldiers at the scene reported seeing an Iraqi police officer pull something from the burned car and then place it in the front seat of an ambulance, according to Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a spokesman for the Fourth Infantry Division, which patrols Baghdad.

The soldier never said the item pulled from the car was a weapon, he said. But the soldier’s account nevertheless formed the basis for a statement in an initial internal military assessment of the attack, which said that a weapon had been pulled from the car.

“We don’t believe there was any cover-up,” Colonel Stover said.

The investigation also revealed that the car had already passed through a major checkpoint leading into the airport, which required the occupants to submit to a thorough search for weapons and other dangerous objects. As they had many times before, the bank employees then drove down the main civilian road to the airport.

But this time they encountered a four-vehicle military convoy that was not supposed to be there. The convoy had taken the wrong road and failed to turn into a military checkpoint. Instead, the military vehicles had traveled down a road that serves as the main entry for thousands of Iraqis who drive to the Baghdad airport.

The convoy had stopped on the side of the road to try to fix a problem with a vehicle when the car with the bank employees approached. A soldier guarding the rear of the convoy fired several warning shots, according to Colonel Stover. When the car did not stop, 9 of the 18 soldiers in the platoon opened fire.

In its initial news release about the killings, the military said that the car then crashed and “exploded.” But that, too, was false, Colonel Stover said. After the shootings, the car’s engine compartment ignited, he said, and the fire then “spread throughout the car.”

Soldiers also fired warning shots near at least two other vehicles, causing them to stop and turn around. Some of the soldiers involved in the shooting had previously been involved in what the military calls “escalation of force” episodes involving civilians, he added.

The soldiers “thought they were in danger, they really did,” Colonel Stover said, adding that the soldiers said they had thought they saw gunfire. “We now know there were no weapons in the car, and there were not any shell casings.” The military’s investigating officer filed his report on the attack on July 7, and the soldiers involved returned to duty on July 15.

“This was an extremely unfortunate and tragic incident,” Col. Allen Batschelet, chief of staff for the Fourth Infantry Division, said in the statement issued Sunday night. He said the military would take “several corrective measures to amend and eliminate the possibility of such situations happening in the future.”

According to Colonel Stover, those measures include ensuring that troops do not accidentally travel down the civilian road to the airport as well as reviewing escalation of force procedures “to see if they are meeting needs of the current environment.”

And people wonder why the Iraqis want us out of the country. A convoy erroneously travels down a civilian roadway near the airport, experiences a vehicle breakdown and then proceeds to kill the Iraqi occupants of an approaching vehicle using the road lawfully as they had always done after passing through a high security checkpoint. Of course, it's just an extremely unfortunate and tragic accident. US military service in Iraq empowers people to do things that would normally be considered homicide in almost any other context.

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