U.S. Checkpoints Raise Ire as Iraqis Are Killed or Wounded

By JOHN F. BURNS

New York Times

March 7, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 6 - When an Italian journalist was driven up Baghdad's airport road toward an American military checkpoint on Friday night, she was driving into a situation fraught with hazards thousands of Iraqis face every day.

The journalist, Giuliana Sgrena, 56, ran into fierce American gunfire that left her with a shrapnel wound to her shoulder and killed the Italian intelligence agent sitting beside her in the rear seat. She had been released only 35 minutes earlier by Iraqi kidnappers who had held her hostage for a month, and the car carrying them to the airport was driving in pitch dark.

But the conditions for the journey, up a road that is considered the most dangerous in Iraq, were broadly the same as those facing all civilian drivers approaching American checkpoints or convoys. American soldiers operate under rules of engagement that give them authority to open fire whenever they have reason to believe that they or others in their unit may be at risk of suicide bombings or other insurgent attacks.

Next to the scandal of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, no other aspect of the American military presence in Iraq has caused such widespread dismay and anger among Iraqis, judging by their frequent outbursts on the subject. Daily reports compiled by Western security companies chronicle many incidents in which Iraqis with no apparent connection to the insurgency are killed or wounded by American troops who have opened fire on suspicion that the Iraqis were engaged in a terrorist attack.

Accounts of the incidents vary widely, as they have in the incident involving Ms. Sgrena, with the American command emphasizing aspects of drivers' behavior that aroused legitimate concerns, and survivors saying, often, that they were doing nothing threatening. Since few of the incidents are ever formally investigated, many families are left with unresolved feelings of bitterness.

American and Iraqi officials say they have no figures on such casualties, just as they say they have no reliable statistics on the far higher number of civilian deaths in the fighting that began with the American-led invasion nearly two years ago. But any Westerner working in Iraq comes across numerous accounts of apparently innocent deaths and injuries among drivers and passengers who drew American fire, often in circumstances that have left the Iraqis puzzled as to what, if anything, they did wrong.

The confusion arises, in most cases, from a clash of perspectives. The American soldiers know that circumstances erupt in which a second's hesitation can mean death, and say civilian deaths are a regrettable but inevitable consequence of a war in which suicide bombers have been the insurgents' most deadly weapon. But Iraqis say they have no clear idea of American engagement rules, and accuse the American command of failing to disseminate the rules to the public, in newspapers or on radio and television stations.

The military says it takes many precautions to ensure the safety of civilians. But a military spokesman in Baghdad declined in a telephone interview on Sunday to describe the engagement rules in detail, saying the military needed to maintain secrecy over how it responds to the threat of car bombs.

The spokesman, as well as a senior Pentagon official who discussed the issue in Washington on Sunday, said official statements issued after the Friday shooting offered a broad outline of the rules. In those statements, the military said it tried to slow Ms. Sgrena's vehicle with hand signals, flashing lights and warning shots before firing into the car's engine block.

But many Iraqis tell of being fired on with little or no warning.

Basman Fadhil, 29, a taxi driver interviewed Sunday in Baghdad, described driving home to the southern Doura neighborhood on Jan. 13. The power was out, as it often is in the capital, and the streets were very dark. He was only a block or so from his house when bullets shattered his windshield. "I thought it was thieves trying to steal my car, so I drove faster," he said.

One bullet struck him in the shoulder, causing him to crash into a concrete barrier. Getting out of the badly damaged vehicle, he staggered a few steps until American and Iraqi soldiers began yelling at him from the darkness not to move. When he asked the soldiers why they had shot at him, Mr. Fadhil said, they told him there had been gunmen in the area shortly before.

The military spokesman in Baghdad said the rules of engagement were written and issued by senior commanders in the 150,000-member American force here, and submitted for higher approval by the United States Central Command, which controls American military activities across the Middle East. The rules are passed down the chain of command, and thoroughly explained to every soldier operating a checkpoint or manning weapons in any vehicles in a convoy, the spokesman said.

Because the rules are intended to protect soldiers coming under immediate attack, no telephone or radio calls to higher command are required before soldiers may put them into effect. "Rules of engagement are standing orders," he said. "These are briefed all the way down to the lowest level."

"Everybody knows what they are," he said. "They are automatic."

In Italy, Ms. Sgrena, recovering in a hospital, has contested several aspects of the military's account. In a front-page account headlined "My Truth" that appeared Sunday in her newspaper, Il Manifesto, and in interviews with Italian news agencies, she said that the car was traveling at "moderate speed," that she saw no flashing lights, and that the first notice she had was when the car came under "a rain of bullets." The Pentagon and the American command in Baghdad have pledged a thorough investigation of the shooting.

Ms. Sgrena and her companions were not the only Western civilians to have come under American fire, according to a series of unclassified government reports that receive extremely restricted circulation, copies of which have been made available to The Times. The reports outline at least six incidents since December in which American troops have fired on vehicles carrying Westerners in the area around the airport.

The reports chronicled one incident in January at a checkpoint near the airport road when an American soldier fired at a car even though it was moving slowly and the driver was holding his identification card in plain sight out of the window. The soldier finally waved the car away and forced it to drive down the wrong side of a road.

In early February, a private security company carrying Western clients was fired upon by American troops on the airport road itself. "This is the second time in three days," the report on the incident noted. Later that month, a Western contractor approaching a checkpoint at roughly five miles an hour after dropping off a passenger at the airport heard gunfire, assumed he was coming under attack by insurgents and tried to speed away.

But the fire turned out to have been from American troops, who fired warning shots, then hit the passenger side windshield, forcing the driver to stop, climb from the car and put his hands in the air. In statements released by the United States command about suicide bombings that it has foiled, the emphasis is usually on the graduated response. "A gray sedan broke through the stopped traffic and accelerated to about 40 miles per hour as it moved through an intersection," said one of those releases, put out by the First Marine Expeditionary Force on March 2.

"Soldiers first used hand and arm signals, along with verbal commands, in an effort to get the driver of the vehicle to stop," the statement said. "Soldiers fired in front of the vehicle to warn the driver to stop. They then fired into the engine compartment when it was about 25 meters from their position, which disabled the vehicle."

The vehicle caught fire and was rocked by a series of explosions, suggesting that the car had been rigged as a bomb, the release said. "The driver never exited the vehicle," it concluded, indicating that he had been killed.

Many Iraqi drivers complain that they know of no clear rules for dealing with American convoys. Reporters have listened as American officers brief armored-vehicle drivers before leaving United States bases on procedures for keeping civilian vehicles well back. Generally, the machine-gunner in the last Humvee is instructed to raise a clenched fist - a military gesture meaning "stay back" that few Iraqis understand - then to wave both arms, and throw water bottles or anything else available. Only then, the officers say, is the gunner authorized to open fire, first at the engine block, then at the driver.

One of the starkest incidents in recent weeks occurred on the evening of Jan. 18 in the town of Tal Afar, a trouble spot west of the city of Mosul, where a platoon from the 25th Infantry Division was on a foot patrol. Chris Hondros, a photographer for Getty Images, an American photo agency, said that soldiers of the Apache company were walking in near darkness toward an intersection along a deserted commercial street when they saw the headlights of a sedan turning into the street about 100 yards ahead.

An officer ordered the troops over their headsets to halt the vehicle, and all raised weapons. One soldier fired a three-shot burst into the air, but the car kept coming, Mr. Hondros said, and then half a dozen troops fired at least 50 rounds, until the car was peppered with bullets and rolled gently to a stop against a curb.

"I could hear sobbing and crying coming from t he car, children's voices," Mr. Hondros said.

Next he said, one of the rear doors opened, and six children, four girls and two boys, one only 8 years old, tumbled into the street. They were splattered with blood.

Mr. Hondros, whose photographs of the incident were published around the world, said that the parents of four of the children lay dead in the front seat. Their bodies were riddled with bullets, and the man's skull had smashed.

Back at a base in Tal Afar, the soldiers and Mr. Hondros filled out forms with their observations on the incident. The company commander told the soldiers that there would be an investigation, but that they had followed the rules of engagement and that they should tell the truth, Mr. Hondros said. "I'll stick up for you," the captain told the soldiers, Mr. Hondros recalled. He said the platoon involved in the incident had been engaged in an intense firefight with insurgents in Tal Afar two days before the incident. "It was a jangling experience," he said.

Reporting for this article was contributed by Robert F. Worth, James Glanz, Edward Wong and Iraqi staff members of The New York Times bureau in Baghdad and by Thom Shanker from Washington.