U.S. Acknowledges That Gunships Fired Into Iraqi Crowd

By Patrick J. McDonnell

Los Angeles Times

September 16, 2004

BAGHDAD -- U.S. commanders acknowledged Wednesday that their helicopters fired seven rockets and 30 high-caliber machine-gun rounds onto a crowded Baghdad street earlier this week during a battle that killed 16 Iraqis and sparked a heated debate about how civilians often become the victims of U.S. firepower.

Army officials called the helicopter attack an appropriate response after U.S. soldiers were fired on by insurgents from the vicinity of a Bradley fighting vehicle set ablaze by a suicide car bomb.

"The actions taken by our soldiers and pilots were clearly within their rights," said Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, commander of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, which patrols Baghdad.

U.S. officials said it was unclear what caused the casualties -- volleys from the helicopters, explosions from ammunition in the Bradley, or insurgent fire. "We regret the loss of any innocent civilians," said Col. Jim McConville, who heads the aviation brigade for the 1st Cavalry Division.

The carnage along the capital's Haifa Street has enraged many Iraqis who say that U.S. troops often attack without provocation and fire randomly when attacked.

Army commanders Wednesday gave an unusual public recounting of Sunday's battle in an effort to defuse charges that the two helicopters fired randomly into a crowd of civilians.

The Army gave a new account of the battle, disavowing an earlier account by U.S. military spokesmen who said the helicopter fired on the street to provide cover for escaping U.S. troops.

Military officials here have adamantly denied oft-repeated charges by Iraqis that U.S. forces bomb civilian targets in places such as Fallujah and fire indiscriminately when attacked in Baghdad and elsewhere. But the charge that American soldiers are trigger-happy is repeated in Arab-language news media, damaging U.S. forces' credibility with some Iraqis and across the Arab world.

On Sunday, television viewers around the world saw footage of the Haifa street battle that also injured 61 Iraqis. Among the dead was Mazen al-Tumeizi, a reporter for Al-Arabiya, the Arab-language satellite network, who was taping a report with the smoking U.S. armored vehicle in the background when an explosion occurred and he was hit.

"I'm dying," al-Tumeizi gasped as he doubled over and screamed in a report shown repeatedly on the Dubai-based network. "I'm dying."

U.S. commanders say their soldiers are often required to respond swiftly to life-threatening situations. U.S. troops are fighting a guerrilla force here that wears no uniform and quickly blends into the civilian population. The urban nature of much of the fight also affords insurgents ample opportunities to fire from crowds, apartment buildings and other civilian sites. Edgy U.S. troops on patrol must view people encountered on the streets as potential threats. Soldiers are also wary that civilian cars approaching military vehicles may be car bombs.

Sunday's deaths sparked a rancorous debate because the mission of soldiers in the helicopters was to scatter a crowd gathered around the burning armored vehicle. Iraqi commentators have suggested it would have been more humane to allow the Bradley to be ransacked, or to have retaken it with ground forces.

"A tank can always be replaced, but you can't replace human lives," said Kadhim Sultani, chairman of the Iraqi National Human Rights Association, a non-governmental group.

But U.S. commanders say it was critical to disperse the crowd and make sure no one looted the weapons, ammunition and communications equipment inside. Troops are authorized to use deadly force to protect "sensitive equipment" from falling into enemy hands, Gen. Chiarelli said.

Military commanders acknowledged on Wednesday that earlier U.S. accounts that the helicopters were providing cover for escaping U.S. troops were not correct. The troops had already retreated to a strong point 400 meters away by the time the two Kiowa Warrior helicopters appeared in the sky above Haifa Street at about 7:30 a.m., commanders said. The six wounded soldiers from the Bradley had been evacuated.

Images of celebratory crowds gathered around burning Humvees, tanks and other U.S. vehicles have become commonplace in post-invasion Iraq. Photographs now circulating on militant Islamic Web sites show a young man placing the black banner of Tawhid and Jihad -- a group led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian guerrilla allegedly orchestrating a campaign against U.S.-led forces--into the armored vehicle's cannon

The Army said it was not the sight of the insurgent flag on the Bradley vehicle that triggered the U.S. helicopter strike. Commanders said a "preliminary investigation" showed that soldiers in the helicopters fired only after bullets from the vicinity of the disabled Bradley came their way.

The two helicopters made three passes each and fired a total of seven rockets and squeezed off 30 rounds of .50-caliber machine gun fire, said Col. McConville. He said soldiers in the helicopters were aiming at "insurgent or terrorist forces firing at our aircraft," and not at civilians gawking and poking at the disabled fighting vehicle.

Officials also disavowed an earlier U.S. account that a rocket was launched at the Bradley to destroy it and ensure it did not fall into enemy hands. The fire was aimed solely at armed insurgents in the vicinity of the disabled vehicle, the commanders said.

The crowd dispersed after the firing and U.S. ground forces eventually were able to reach the blazing vehicle and tow it away. U.S. officials could not say if sensitive equipment had been looted .

Several survivors interviewed on Wednesday at Kerama Hospital in Baghdad disputed the U.S. account.

"I saw no one among the people near or on top of the burning tank who had a weapon," said Alaa Naeem Amlwan, 30, who had shrapnel removed from his abdomen and was being treated for a broken leg. "The Americans felt angry when they saw the people celebrating and carrying the black banner of Tawhid and Jihad."

Hamoodi Abdul-Hadi, 24, said gunmen who had earlier fired at U.S. ground troops had fled the area by the time the helicopters arrived.

"There were people surrounding the burnt tank," Abdul-Hadi said, "but the fighters had left the scene by then."

Special correspondents Raheem Salman and Salar Jaff in Baghdad contributed to this report