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Civilian deaths roil Afghans

February 18, 2009|Kim Barker

OUTSIDE MEHTAR LAM, AFGHANISTAN — Ghazi Gul keeps the pictures of the dead in a pocket near his heart -- his father, two brothers, a cousin, a nephew.

Gul works for the Afghan intelligence service, fighting militants on behalf of the U.S.-backed government. But he blames the U.S. for killing eight of his relatives, including his mother and two nieces. And he wants revenge.

"I will continue to serve my government," said Gul, 25, who moved to a refugee camp near Mehtar Lam, the capital of Laghman province, after an American raid on his village at the end of January. "But if we talk about the Americans, they are my enemies. And if I can, I will hurt them."

No issue threatens to undermine the growing U.S. mission in Afghanistan more than civilian casualties, which have turned rising numbers of Afghans against international troops, created a rift between the U.S. and President Hamid Karzai and given Taliban insurgents an issue easy to exploit.

Gul and others from his village of Galoch blame the U.S. for killing 16 civilians, including two women and three children, and injuring dozens more early Jan. 24. They say the assault targeted a Taliban commander who had left months before and that only civilians were killed. Afghan officials also say the dead were all civilians.

The U.S. military maintains that the dead were mostly militants and that the only woman killed was firing a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. But still, the U.S. paid each victim's family almost $2,000, a move the U.S. says was designed to show compassion but that Afghans say proves the dead were innocent.

Taliban-led insurgents are responsible for killing more innocents than the international forces have and probably use civilians as human shields, U.S. and Afghan officials say. But Afghans increasingly blame the international troops, particularly the U.S., for making mistakes and not coordinating with the Afghan government on raids and strikes.

Referring to the January raid, tribal chief Sayed Hazratullah Khalilyar said: "When they came, we didn't know they were Americans. We thought they were thieves. Someone fired a warning shot. And then they killed us."

The U.S. has launched an investigation into the attack.

Col. Greg Julian, a spokesman for U.S. forces, said it's still not clear what happened.

"I would say there was some potential that some of those killed were civilians," he said. "Because some of those men shooting at our troops may have been civilians."

Now U.S. soldiers in Laghman province are left trying to repair the damage. At one meeting at the governor's office after the Galoch attack, Afghans surrounded the compound and threw rocks inside, toward vehicles and soldiers.

"That's really unusual for this area," said Lt. Col. Dan Fuhr, 44, the top U.S. commander in Laghman.

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kbarker@tribune.com

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