U.S. Airstrikes Take Toll on Civilians
Eyewitnesses Cite Scores Killed in Marine Offensive in Western Iraq
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Post" -- -- RAMADI, Iraq -- U.S. Marine
airstrikes targeting insurgents sheltering in Iraqi residential
neighborhoods are killing civilians as well as guerrillas along the
Euphrates River in far western Iraq, according to Iraqi townspeople
and officials and the U.S. military.
Just how many civilians have been killed is strongly disputed by the
Marines and, some critics say, too little investigated. But
townspeople, tribal leaders, medical workers and accounts from
witnesses at the sites of clashes, at hospitals and at graveyards
indicated that scores of noncombatants were killed last month in
fighting, including airstrikes, in the opening stages of a 17-day
U.S.-Iraqi offensive in Anbar province.
"These people died silently, complaining to God of a guilt they did
not commit," Zahid Mohammed Rawi, a physician, said in the town of
Husaybah. Rawi said that roughly one week into Operation Steel
Curtain, which began on Nov. 5, medical workers had recorded 97
civilians killed. At least 38 insurgents were also killed in the
offensive's early days, Rawi said.
In a Husaybah school converted to a makeshift hospital, Rawi, four
other doctors and a nurse treated wounded Iraqis in the opening days
of the offensive, examining bloodied children as anxious fathers
soothed them and held them down.
"I dare any organization, committee or the American Army to deny
these numbers," Rawi said.
U.S. Marines in Anbar say they take pains to spare innocent lives
and almost invariably question civilian accounts from the
battleground communities. They say that townspeople who either
support the insurgents or are intimidated by them are manipulating
the number of noncombatant deaths for propaganda -- a charge that
some Iraqis acknowledge is true of some residents and medical
workers in Anbar province.
"I wholeheartedly believe the vast majority of civilians are killed
by the insurgency," particularly by improvised bombs, said Col.
Michael Denning, the top air officer for the 2nd Marine Division,
which is leading the fight against insurgents in Anbar province.
In an interview at a Marine base at Ramadi, Anbar's provincial
capital, Denning acknowledged that a city was "a very, very
difficult place to fight." He said, however, that "insurgents will
kill civilians and try to blame it on us."
But some military analysts say the U.S. military must do more to
track the civilian toll from its airstrikes. Sarah Sewall, deputy
assistant secretary of defense from 1993 to 1996 and now program
director for the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard,
said the military's resistance to acknowledging and analyzing
so-called collateral damage remained one of the most serious
failures of the U.S. air and ground war in Iraq.
"It's almost impossible to fight a war in which engagements occur in
urban areas [and] to avoid civilian casualties," Sewall, whose
center is a branch of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government that
focuses on issues such as genocide, failed states and military
intervention, said in a telephone interview.
"In a conflict like Iraq, where civilian perceptions are as
important as the number of weapons caches destroyed, assessing the
civilian harm must become a part of the battle damage assessment
process if you're going to fight a smart war," she said.
The number of airstrikes carried out each month by U.S. aircraft
rose almost fivefold this year, from roughly 25 in January to 120 in
November, according to a tally provided by the military. Accounts by
residents, officials and witnesses in Anbar and the Marines
themselves make clear that Iraqi civilians are frequently caught in
On Nov. 7, the third day of the offensive, witnesses watched from
the roof of a public building in Husaybah as U.S. warplanes struck
homes in the town's Kamaliyat neighborhood. After fires ignited by
the fighting had died down, witnesses observed residents removing
the bodies of what neighbors said was a family -- mother, father,
14-year-old girl, 11-year-old boy and 5-year-old boy -- from the
rubble of one house.
Survivors said insurgents had been firing mortars from yards in the
neighborhood just before the airstrikes. Residents pleaded with the
guerrillas to leave for fear of drawing attacks on the families,
they said, but were told by the fighters that they had no other
space from which to attack.
Near the town of Qaim one day last month, a man who identified
himself only as Abdul Aziz said a separate U.S. airstrike killed his
grown daughter, Aesha. Four armed men were also found in the rubble
of her house, he said.
"I don't blame the Americans. I blame Zarqawi and his group, who
were using my daughter's house as a shelter," said Abdul Aziz,
referring to Abu Musab Zarqawi, leader of the foreign-dominated
group al Qaeda in Iraq.
Abdul Aziz spoke beside his daughter's newly dug grave, in a
cemetery established for the 80 to 90 civilians who Anbar officials
said were killed in the first weeks of the offensive. Several dozen
new graves were evident, and residents said more than 40 victims of
the fighting were to be buried that day alone. Witnesses saw only
11, all wrapped in blankets for burial. Residents said two of the 11
Abdul Aziz's grandsons ascribed blame for their mother's death more
pointedly. "She was killed in the bombing by the Americans," said
Ali, 9, the oldest of three brothers.
Operation Steel Curtain is representative of a series of offensives
in western Anbar that began in late April. Brig. Gen. James L.
Williams of the 2nd Marine Division described them as a town-by-town
campaign to drive out insurgents and establish a permanent Iraqi
army presence in the heavily Sunni Arab region. Iraqi and foreign
insurgents use the Euphrates River communities for bases and for
logistics support to funnel money, recruits and ordnance from Anbar
and neighboring Syria to fighters planning attacks elsewhere in
Steel Curtain involved 2,500 U.S. Marines, soldiers and sailors and
about 1,000 soldiers of the U.S.-trained Iraqi army, including newly
established units of locally recruited scouts commissioned mainly
for their knowledge of the area, the Marines said. As the Iraqi and
U.S. forces moved through Husaybah, Karabilah and other towns,
Marines said, they encountered scores of mines and insurgent-rigged
bombs made from artillery shells or other ordnance. Ten Marines and
139 insurgents died in the offensive, the Marines said. They gave no
totals for known civilian deaths.
Statements issued by the U.S. military during the offensive reported
at least two incidents that were described as airstrikes unwittingly
conducted on buildings where civilians were later found to have been
On Nov. 8, a man in Husaybah led U.S. and Iraqi forces to a house
destroyed by U.S. airstrikes the previous day, Marines said.
Searching the rubble, Iraqi troops and U.S. Marines found two
wounded civilians -- a young girl and a man -- and recovered five
The Marines were told that fighters loyal to Zarqawi had forced
their way into the house, killed two of the people inside and locked
the rest of the family on a lower floor before using the building to
attack Iraqi and U.S. forces clearing the neighborhood.
"The soldiers and Marines had no knowledge of the civilians being
held hostage in the home at the time of the attack," Marines said in
a statement. It could not be determined if that airstrike was the
same as the one described by witnesses who watched removal of the
On Nov. 15, U.S.-led forces called in an airstrike after coming
under small-arms fire from a building in the hamlet of New Ubaydi.
Two men ran from the building waving white flags after the
airstrike, followed by 15 male and female civilians, a U.S. Marine
Marines described other instances of insurgents hiding among
civilians in Anbar, including occasions when they dressed as women
and tried to pass unnoticed among townspeople fleeing the battles.
Residents, local officials and emergency workers said insurgents
often sheltered among civilians in urban neighborhoods.
Arkan Isawi, an elder in Husaybah, said he and four other tribal
leaders gathered to assess the damage while the operation was still
underway and identified at least 80 dead, including women and
children. "I personally pulled out a family of three children and
parents," he said.
An exact count, however, was impossible, he said. "Anyone who gives
you a number is lying, because the city was a mess, and people
buried bodies in backyards and parking lots," with other bodies
still under rubble, Isawi said.
Townspeople, medical workers and officials often exaggerate death
tolls, either for effect or under orders from insurgents. However,
accounts from other officials and residents are borne out at least
partially by direct observation of bodies and other evidence.
The accounts of U.S. Marines and Iraqi civilians of airstrikes often
On Oct. 16, for instance, a U.S. F-15 pilot caught a group of
Ramadi-area insurgents planting explosives in a blast crater on a
road used by U.S. forces, Denning said. The F-15 dropped a bomb on
the group, and analysis of video footage shot by the plane showed
only what appeared to be grown men where the bomb struck, Denning
said. After the airstrike, he said, roadside bombs in the area "shut
down to almost nothing.
"That was a good strike, and we got some people who were killing a
lot of people," Denning said.
Capt. Jeffrey S. Pool, a spokesman for the 2nd Marines, said it was
not possible that children were killed in that strike unless they
were outside the range of the F-15's camera.
Residents, however, said the strike killed civilians as well as
insurgents, including 18 children. Afterward, at a traditional
communal funeral, black banners bore the names of the dead, and
grieving parents gave names, ages and detailed descriptions of the
children they said had been killed, witnesses said. The bodies of
three children and a woman lay unclaimed outside a hospital after
the day's fighting.
American commanders insist they do everything possible to avoid
civilian casualties, but overall, Denning said, "I think it would be
very difficult to prosecute this insurgency" without airstrikes.
The precision-guided munitions used in all airstrikes in Anbar "have
miss rates smaller than the size of this table," Denning said in the
bare-bones cafeteria of one of several Marine bases around Ramadi.
He said that officers at Ramadi and at the Marines' "lessons
learned" center in Quantico coordinate each attack using the best
intelligence available. "I have to sell it to about two or three
different chains of command: 'What are you doing to make sure there
are no civilian casualties?' " Denning said.
Sewall, the former Pentagon official, also said air power often is
the best means for taking out a target more cleanly than ground
forces could. But, she said, U.S. forces don't do enough after the
airstrikes to figure out whether each one succeeded in hitting the
intended targets while sparing civilians.
Marine officers said their lessons-learned center at Quantico did
not try to assess civilian casualties from attacks. At the Pentagon,
routine bomb-damage assessments rely heavily on the examination of
aerial photos and satellite images, which Sewall said were "good for
seeing if a building was hit, but not as good for determining who
"I have enormous respect for the extent to which U.S. air power has
become discriminate," Sewall said. "But when you're using force in
an urban area or using force in an area with limited intelligence,"
and facing an enemy actively "exploiting distinctions between
combatants and noncombatants, air power becomes challenging no
matter how discriminate it is.
"When it comes to the extent to which they are minimizing civilian
harm, the question becomes: How do you know?" Sewall said.
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks in Washington contributed to this
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