Army Is Investigating Reports of Assaults and Thefts by G.I.'s Against Iraqi Civilians

By ERIC SCHMITT
Published: May 31, 2004

WASHINGTON, May 30 - The Army is investigating at least two dozen cases in which American soldiers are accused of assaulting civilian Iraqis or stealing their money, jewelry and other property during raids, patrols and house-to-house searches, senior Defense Department officials said Sunday.

In some instances, investigators say, soldiers were reported to have stolen cash from Iraqis they stopped at roadside checkpoints, apparently under the pretext of confiscating money from suspected insurgents or their financial backers.

The Army's Criminal Investigation Command is also examining at least six cases in which soldiers on missions reportedly kicked, punched or beat civilian Iraqis, or fired their weapons near the Iraqis to scare or intimidate them.

Those statistics and broad descriptions are included in an internal summary prepared earlier this month by the investigation command at the request of senior Army officials who are struggling to understand the scope of mistreatment and potential crimes committed by American soldiers in Iraq beyond the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and other Army-run detention sites.

While military officials here and in Iraq say the reports of thievery and lawlessness are isolated cases among more than 135,000 American troops, other military officials say the official numbers probably underestimate the actual offenses because most Iraqis are too frightened to file a formal complaint with the American authorities.

The Army has acknowledged it is investigating 37 deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan involving prisoners in American custody. Other confidential Army documents have chronicled a widespread pattern of abuse involving prisoners in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan that implicates more military units than previously known.

But this new summary of previously undisclosed reported abuses, a description of which was provided by a senior Defense official, widens the scope of potential wrongdoing beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib and other prisons, to the daily operations of American forces in Iraq.

"We want to be viewed as liberators and as examples of a professional army working for the good of people," said the Defense official. "To have a soldier act criminally certainly can damage that reputation. For your average Iraqi, the question becomes, what's the difference between what Saddam Hussein's forces did and what these soldiers did?"

The summary lists categories of offenses under review - 18 theft and 6 assault cases in Iraq as of May 21 - but it does not describe details of each incident, which units were involved, whether each case is pending or closed, or what, if any, disciplinary action was taken.

The incidents were reported to have taken place in the past 15 months and were reported by Iraqis and, in a few cases, by American soldiers. Military officials said it was difficult to compare those figures with other areas where American troops are operating, including Afghanistan, where the United States has only 10,000 troops, and is conducting far fewer house-to-house searches and roadside checkpoints than in Iraq.

A spokesman for the investigation command did not respond to several phone calls and e-mail messages over the weekend.

Senior military officials have reluctantly acknowledged that small numbers of an American force in Iraq that they characterize as well trained and highly disciplined have committed assaults, thefts and other abuses against civilian Iraqis, outside of detention sites, since American troops invaded Iraq in March 2003. "There have been, sadly, cases where soldiers have operated outside established, trained rules of engagement and rules for the use of force - a very, very small number in a force of over 150,000," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the military's chief spokesman in Iraq, told reporters on March 22. "While each of those cases is nothing to take great pride in, the fact is that 99-plus percent of the soldiers are operating well within those rules of engagement, under very tough conditions, showing remarkable restraint, day after day, operating inside this country," General Kimmitt added.