[News] Fisk: Gunned down with abandon

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Wed Feb 25 08:53:01 EST 2004


  Gunned down with abandon

By Robert Fisk

Feb 22, 2004: (The New Nation) Running the gauntlet of small arms fire and 
rocket-propelled grenades after check-in at Baghdad airportBaghdad, Iraq 
--I was in the police station in the town of Fallujah when I realised the 
extent of the schizophrenia. Captain Christopher Cirino of the 82nd 
Airborne was trying to explain to me the nature of the attacks so regularly 
carried out against American forces in the Sunni Muslim Iraqi town. His men 
were billeted in a former presidential rest home down the 
road--"Dreamland", the Americans call it--but this was not the extent of 
his soldiers' disorientation. "The men we are being attacked by," he said, 
"are Syrian-trained terrorists and local freedom fighters." Come again? 
"Freedom fighters." But that's what Captain Cirino called them--and rightly so.

Here's the reason. All American soldiers are supposed to believe--indeed 
have to believe, along with their President and his Defence Secretary, 
Donald Rumsfeld--that Osama bin Laden's "al-Qa'ida" guerrillas, pouring 
over Iraq's borders from Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia (note how those close 
allies and neighbours of Iraq, Kuwait and Turkey are always left out of the 
equation), are assaulting United States forces as part of the "war on 
terror". Special forces soldiers are now being told by their officers that 
the "war on terror" has been transferred from America to Iraq, as if in 
some miraculous way, 11 September 2001 is now Iraq 2003. Note too how the 
Americans always leave the Iraqis out of the culpability bracket--unless 
they can be described as "Baath party remnants", "diehards" or "deadenders" 
by the US proconsul, Paul Bremer.

Captain Cirino's problem, of course, is that he knows part of the truth. 
Ordinary Iraqis--many of them long-term enemies of Saddam Hu! ssein--are 
attacking the American occupation army 35 times a day in th e Baghdad area 
alone. And Captain Cirino works in Fallujah's local police station, where 
America's newly hired Iraqi policemen are the brothers and uncles and--no 
doubt--fathers of some of those now waging guerrilla war against American 
soldiers in Fallujah. Some of them, I suspect, are indeed themselves the 
"terrorists". So if he calls the bad guys "terrorists", the local cops--his 
first line of defence--would be very angry indeed.
No wonder morale is low. No wonder the American soldiers I meet on the 
streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities don't mince their words about 
their own government. US troops have been given orders not to bad-mouth 
their President or Secretary of Defence in front of Iraqis or reporters 
(who have about the same status in the eyes of the occupation authorities). 
But when I suggested to a group of US military police near Abu Ghurayb they 
would be voting Republican at the next election, they fell about laughing. 
"We shouldn't be here and we should! never have been sent here," one of 
them told me with astonishing candour. "And maybe you can tell me: why were 
we sent here?"

Little wonder, then, that Stars and Stripes, the American military's own 
newspaper, reported this month that one third of the soldiers in Iraq 
suffered from low morale. And is it any wonder, that being the case, that 
US forces in Iraq are shooting down the innocent, kicking and brutalising 
prisoners, trashing homes and--eyewitness testimony is coming from hundreds 
of Iraqis--stealing money from houses they are raiding? No, this is not 
Vietnam--where the Americans sometimes lost 3,000 men in a month--nor is 
the US army in Iraq turning into a rabble. Not yet. And they remain light 
years away from the butchery of Saddam's henchmen. But human-rights 
monitors, civilian occupation officials and journalists--not to mention 
Iraqis themselves--are increasingly appalled at the behaviour of the 
American military occupiers.

Iraqis who fail to see US military checkpoints, who overtake convoys under 
attack--or who mer ely pass the scene of an American raid--are being gunned 
down with abandon. US official "inquiries" into these killings routinely 
result in either silence or claims that the soldiers "obeyed their rules of 
engagement"--rules that the Americans will not disclose to the public.

The rot comes from the top. Even during the Anglo-American invasion of 
Iraq, US forces declined to take responsibility for the innocents they 
killed. "We do not do body counts," General Tommy Franks announced. So 
there was no apology for the 16 civilians killed at Mansur when the 
"Allies"--note how we Brits get caught up in this misleading title--bombed 
a residential suburb in the vain hope of killing Saddam. When US special 
forces raided a house in the very same area four months later--hunting for 
the very same Iraqi leader--they killed six civilians, including a 
14-year-old boy and a middle-aged woman, and only announced, four days 
later, that they would hold an "inquiry". Not an investigation,! you 
understand, nothing that would suggest there was anything wrong in gunning 
down six Iraqi civilians; and in due course the "inquiry" was forgotten--as 
it was no doubt meant to be--and nothing has been heard of it again.
Again, during the invasion, the Americans dropped hundreds of cluster bombs 
on villages outside the town of Hillah. They left behind a butcher's shop 
of chopped-up corpses. Film of babies cut in half during the raid was not 
even transmitted by the Reuters crew in Baghdad. The Pentagon then said 
there were "no indications" cluster bombs had been dropped at Hillah--even 
though Sky TV found some unexploded and brought them back to Baghdad.

I first came across this absence of remorse--or rather absence of 
responsibility--in a slum suburb of Baghdad called Hayy al-Gailani. Two men 
had run a new American checkpoint--a roll of barbed wire tossed across a 
road before dawn one morning in July--and US troops had opened fire at the 
car. Indeed, they fire! d so many bullets that the vehicle burst into 
flames. And while the de ad or dying men were burned inside, the Americans 
who had set up the checkpoint simply boarded their armoured vehicles and 
left the scene. They never even bothered to visit the hospital mortuary to 
find out the identities of the men they killed--an obvious step if they 
believed they had killed "terrorists"--and inform their relatives. Scenes 
like this are being repeated across Iraq daily.

Which is why Human Rights Watch and Amnesty and other humanitarian 
organisations are protesting ever more vigorously about the failure of the 
US army even to count the numbers of Iraqi dead, let alone account for 
their own role in killing civilians. "It is a tragedy that US soldiers have 
killed so many civilians in Baghdad," Human Rights Watch's Joe Stork said. 
"But it is really incredible that the US military does not even count these 
deaths." Human Rights Watch has counted 94 Iraqi civilians killed by 
Americans in the capital. The organisation also criticised American forces 
for hu! miliating prisoners, not least by their habit of placing their feet 
on the heads of prisoners. Some American soldiers are now being trained in 
Jordan--by Jordanians--in the "respect" that should be accorded to Iraqi 
civilians and about the culture of Islam. About time.

But on the ground in Iraq, Americans have a licence to kill. Not a single 
soldier has been disciplined for shooting civilians--even when the fatality 
involves an Iraqi working for the occupation authorities. No action has 
been taken, for instance, over the soldier who fired a single shot through 
the window of an Italian diplomat's car, killing his translator, in 
northern Iraq. Nor against the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne who gunned 
down 14 Sunni Muslim protesters in Fallujah in April. (Captain Cirino was 
not involved.) Nor against the troops who shot dead 11 more protesters in 
Mosul. Sometimes, the evidence of low morale mounts over a long period. In 
one Iraqi city, for example, the "Coalition Provisi! onal Authority"--which 
is what the occupation authorities call themsel ves--have instructed local 
money changers not to give dollars for Iraqi dinars to occupation soldiers: 
too many Iraqi dinars had been stolen by troops during house raids. 
Repeatedly, in Baghdad, Hillah, Tikrit, Mosul and Fallujah Iraqis have told 
me that they were robbed by American troops during raids and at 
checkpoints. Unless there is a monumental conspiracy on a nationwide scale 
by Iraqis, some of these reports must bear the stamp of truth.

Then there was the case of the Bengal tiger. A group of US troops entered 
the Baghdad zoo one evening for a party of sandwiches and beer. During the 
party, one of the soldiers decided to pet the tiger who--being a Bengal 
tiger--sank his teeth into the soldier. The Americans then shot the tiger 
dead. The Americans promised an "inquiry"--of which nothing has been heard 
since. Ironically, the one incident where US forces faced disciplinary 
action followed an incident in which a US helicopter crew took a black 
religious flag from a! communications tower in Sadr City in Baghdad. The 
violence that followed cost the life of an Iraqi civilian.
Suicides among US troops in Iraq have risen in recent months--up to three 
times the usual rate among American servicemen. At least 23 soldiers are 
believed to have taken their lives since the Anglo-American invasion and 
others have been wounded in attempting suicide. As usual, the US army only 
revealed this statistic following constant questioning. The daily attacks 
on Americans outside Baghdad--up to 50 in a night--go, like the civilian 
Iraqi dead, unrecorded. Travelling back from Fallujah to Baghdad after dark 
last month, I saw mortar explosions and tracer fire around 13 American 
bases--not a word of which was later revealed by the occupation 
authorities. At Baghdad airport last month, five mortar shells fell near 
the runway as a Jordanian airliner was boarding passengers for Amman. I saw 
this attack with my own eyes. That same afternoon, General Ricardo Sanchez, 
the senior US officer in Iraq, claimed he knew nothing about the at tack, 
which--unless his junior officers are slovenly--he must have been well 
aware of.

But can we expect anything else of an army that can wilfully mislead 
soldiers into writing "letters" to their home town papers in the US about 
improvements in Iraqi daily life.

"The quality of life and security for the citizens has been largely 
restored, and we are a large part of why it has happened," Sergeant 
Christopher Shelton of the 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment bragged in a 
letter from Kirkuk to the Snohomish County Tribune. "The majority of the 
city has welcomed our presence with open arms." Only it hasn't. And 
Sergeant Shelton didn't write the letter. Nor did Sergeant Shawn Grueser of 
West Virginia. Nor did Private Nick Deaconson. Nor eight other soldiers who 
supposedly wrote identical letters to their local papers. The "letters" 
were distributed among soldiers, who were asked to sign if they agreed with 
its contents.

But is this, perhaps, not part of the fa! ntasy world inspired by the 
right-wing ideologues in Washington who sought this war--even though most 
of them have never served their country in uniform. They dreamed up the 
"weapons of mass destruction" and the adulation of American troops who 
would "liberate" the Iraqi people. Unable to provide fact to fiction, they 
now merely acknowledge that the soldiers they have sent into the biggest 
rat's nest in the Middle East have "a lot of work to do", that they 
are--this was not revealed before or during the invasion--"fighting the 
front line in the war on terror".

What influence, one might ask, have the Christian fundamentalists had on 
the American army in Iraq? For even if we ignore the Rev Franklin Graham, 
who has described Islam as "a very evil and wicked religion" before he went 
to lecture Pentagon officials--what is one to make of the officer 
responsible for tracking down Osama bin Laden, Lieutenant-General William 
"Jerry" Boykin, who told an audience in Oregon that! Islamists hate the US 
"because we're a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are 
Judeo-Christian and the enemy is a guy called Satan". Recently promoted to 
deputy under-secretary of defence for intelligence, Boykin went on to say 
of the war against Mohammed Farrah Aidid in Somalia--in which he 
participated--that "I knew my God was bigger than his--I knew that my God 
was a real God and his was an idol".

Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld said of these extraordinary remarks 
that "it doesn't look like any rules were broken". We are now told that an 
"inquiry" into Boykin's comments is underway--an "inquiry" about as 
thorough, no doubt, as those held into the killing of civilians in Baghdad.

Weaned on this kind of nonsense, however, is it any surprise that American 
troops in Iraq understand neither their war nor the people whose country 
they are occupying? Terrorists or freedom fighters? What's the difference?

Robert Fisk is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation.

© Copyright 2003 by The New Nation

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