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COLUMN ONE

Shots to the Heart of Iraq

Innocent civilians, including people who are considered vital to building democracy, are increasingly being killed by U.S. troops.

July 25, 2005|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Three men in an unmarked sedan pulled up near the headquarters of the national police major crimes unit. The two passengers, wearing traditional Arab dishdasha gowns, stepped from the car.

At the same moment, a U.S. military convoy emerged from an underpass. Apparently believing the men were staging an ambush, the Americans fired, killing one passenger and wounding the other. The sedan's driver was hit in the head by two bullet fragments.

The soldiers drove on without stopping.

This kind of shooting is far from rare in Baghdad, but the driver of the car was no ordinary casualty. He was Iraqi police Brig. Gen. Majeed Farraji, chief of the major crimes unit. His passengers were unarmed hitchhikers whom he was dropping off on his way to work.

"The reason they shot us is just because the Americans are reckless," the general said from his hospital bed hours after the July 6 shooting, his head wrapped in a white bandage. "Nobody punishes them or blames them."

Angered by the growing number of unarmed civilians killed by American troops in recent weeks, the Iraqi government criticized the shootings and called on U.S. troops to exercise greater care.

U.S. officials have repeatedly declined requests to disclose the number of civilians killed in such incidents. Police in Baghdad say they have received reports that U.S. forces killed 33 unarmed civilians and injured 45 in the capital between May 1 and July 12 -- an average of nearly one fatality every two days. This does not include incidents that occurred elsewhere in the country or were not reported to the police.

The continued shooting of civilians is fueling a growing dislike of the United States and undermining efforts to convince the public that American soldiers are here to help. The victims have included doctors, journalists, a professor -- the kind of people the U.S. is counting on to help build an open and democratic society.

"Of course the shootings will increase support for the opposition," said Farraji, 49, who was named a police general with U.S. approval. "The hatred of the Americans has increased. I myself hate them."

Among the biggest threats U.S. forces face are suicide attacks. Soldiers are exposed as they stand watch at checkpoints or ride on patrol in the turrets of their Humvees. The willingness of the assailants to die makes the attacks difficult to guard against. By their nature, the bombings erode the troops' trust of the public; every civilian becomes suspect.

U.S. military officials say the troops must protect themselves by shooting the driver of any suspicious vehicle before it reaches them.

Heavily armed private security contractors, who number in the tens of thousands, also are authorized by the U.S. government to use deadly force to protect themselves.

One contractor who works for the U.S. government and saw a colleague killed in a suicide bombing said it was better to shoot an innocent person than to risk being killed.

"I'd rather be tried by 12 than carried by six," said the contractor, who insisted that he not be identified by name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The U.S. military says it investigates all shootings by American personnel that result in death. But U.S. Brig. Gen. Don Alston, spokesman for the multinational force in Iraq, said he was unaware of any soldier disciplined for shooting a civilian at a checkpoint or in traffic. Findings are seldom made public.

A senior U.S. military official in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said "making no new enemies" was one of the military's priorities. At the same time, he said, "it's still a combat zone. There are going to be times when what the soldier needs to do and what the civilian feels he should be able to do come into conflict."

*

On June 27, the day he turned 49, Salah Jmor arrived in Baghdad to visit his family.

His father, Abdul-Rihman Jmor, is the chief of a Kurdish clan that numbers more than 20,000. Salah had left Iraq 25 years ago for Switzerland, where he earned a doctorate in international relations and eventually became a Swiss citizen.

For a decade, he represented Iraqi Kurds at the United Nations Office at Geneva. In 1988, he helped call the world's attention to Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons on Kurds in the northern Iraqi town of Halabja and the massacre of at least 100,000 Kurds in what is known as the Anfal campaign.

After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Salah Jmor was offered a post in the new Iraqi government. But he turned it down, preferring to remain in Geneva, where he was an associate professor at the Center for International and Comparative Programs of Kent State University of Ohio.

The morning after he arrived in Baghdad, he decided to go with his younger brother, architect Abdul-Jabbar Jmor, to his office. Abdul-Jabbar, 38, drove his Opel hatchback down the eight-lane Mohammed Qasim highway through central Baghdad. It was 9:30 a.m. and many vehicles were on the road.

The Opel hatchback is a model favored by insurgents.

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