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The U.S. military should be investigating the deaths of dozens of Iraqi civilians killed by its troops; instead, it is not even keeping track of their numbers, says a report released here Tuesday.
In an investigation undertaken in late September, Human Rights Watch collected what it called credible reports of 94 civilian deaths at the hands of U.S. forces from May 1 to Oct. 1, all of which appear to have taken place in circumstances that warrant an official investigation.
In its publication, "Hearts and Minds: Post-War Civilian Casualties in Baghdad by U.S. Forces," the New York-based group deplores the fact that the U.S. military has not kept any statistics on civilians deaths. "Such an attitude suggests that civilians casualties are not a paramount concern," HRW said.
The military has investigated five incidents to date, and four of them resulted in findings that soldiers acted "within the rules of engagement," hence were not liable for any of the deaths. A sixth probe ? into the deaths of eight Iraqi policemen and one Jordanian guard in an incident in al-Falluja last month ? is still underway.
"It's a tragedy that U.S. soldiers have killed so many civilians in Baghdad," said Joe Stork, HRW's acting Middle East and North Africa director.
"But it's really incredible that the U.S. military does not even count these deaths. Any time U.S. forces kill an Iraqi civilian in questionable circumstances, they should investigate the incident," he said.
The 56-page report, based on more than 60 interviews of witnesses and family members of victims in specific incidents, local and international human rights observers, the U.S. military, police records and media accounts, comes amid growing public concern over U.S. military casualties since U.S. President George W. Bush declared an end to major hostilities in Iraq on May 1.
Six U.S. servicemen have reportedly been killed in just the past several days, bringing the death toll among U.S. troops in Iraq since May 1 to 103. U.S. military officers in the country have said that attacks on U.S. forces are becoming both more sophisticated and widespread.
They are particularly concerned about the spread of resistance from the so-called "Sunni Triangle" in central Iraq around Baghdad to Shia areas in the southern part of the country and also because the opposition is made up increasingly of people angry about the U.S. occupation because of abuses committed by U.S. soldiers, rather than because of alleged loyalties to the regime of ousted President Saddam Hussein.
On Saturday, a spokesman at Camp Pendleton in California disclosed that eight Marine reservists are facing charges ranging from negligent homicide to making false statements in connection with the mistreatment of prisoners of war in Iraq, including the death of one prisoner at a camp near Nasiriyah.
On Friday, a Spanish court permitted the indictment of three U.S. troops sued by the family of journalist Jose Couso, who was killed after a U.S. tank fired at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad Apr. 8.
But the HRW report deals only with the deaths of civilians in Baghdad itself. The group stressed that it has no precise idea how many civilians have been killed in all of Iraq by the U.S. military since May 1; nor does the report address incidents in which civilians were wounded by U.S. troops.
It found that the U.S. military, which is responsible for security in Baghdad, is not deliberately targeting civilians but neither is it "doing enough to minimise harm to civilians as required by international law."
"Iraq is clearly a hostile environment for U.S. troops with daily attacks by Iraqis or others opposed to the U.S. and coalition occupation," the report said. "But such an environment does not absolve the military from its obligations to use force in a restrained, proportionate and discriminate manner, and only when strictly necessary."
HRW's investigation found a "pattern by U.S. forces of over-aggressive tactics, indiscriminate shooting in residential areas and a quick reliance on lethal force."
HRW found that civilian deaths took place in one of three basic kinds of incidents.
First, deaths occurred during U.S. military raids on homes in search of arms or resistance fighters. Particularly if they encountered resistance from residents, who sometimes fired on soldiers thinking they were being robbed, U.S. troops sometimes resorted to overwhelming force, killing family members, neighbours or passers-by.
Civilians have sometimes been killed at checkpoints or roadblocks set up after an attack or the detonation of improvised bombs along the roadway. The report cites several cases in which soldiers fired high-calibre weapons in multiple directions after such an incident, injuring and killing civilians nearby.
Killings have also occurred at checkpoints when Iraqi civilians failed to stop or heed directions. These checkpoints move constantly throughout the capital and are sometimes not well marked.
"A dearth of Arabic interpreters and poor understanding of Iraqi hand gestures cause confusion, with results that are sometimes fatal to civilians," noted the report, adding that in some cases soldiers shout conflicting commands in English with their guns raised.
HRW found that in all three situations, U.S. soldiers sometimes behave in an arrogant and abusive manner, often in ways that are considered highly insulting or even taboo to Iraqis. The report pointed in particular to the touching or even searching by soldiers of women and girls and soldiers putting their feet on the heads of detained Iraqis.
The report stressed that HRW researchers also met many U.S. military personnel who dealt respectfully with Iraqis and were working hard to train Iraqi police, guard facilities, and pursue criminals. Some of these expressed frustration at the more-arrogant behaviour of their comrades. "It takes a while to get the Rambo stuff out," one officer told HRW.
The probe also found that U.S. military police (MPs) were far better suited to policing than combat units like the 82nd Airborne and the 1st Armoured Division, which have not received adequate training for the job. A major problem is that soldiers have been asked to switch from warriors to police without proper preparation.
"Soldiers must know they will be held accountable for the improper use of force," said Stork. "Right now, soldiers feel they can pull the trigger without coming under review."
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