In explaining the breakdown in talks over the immunity issue, the U.S. military blames above all the behavior of private contractors. Buchanan singled out the Nissoor Square incident in 2007, in which Blackwater security guards killed 17 civilians at a busy traffic circle in Baghdad.
‘It’s in the air’
While Haditha and Nissoor Square became potent symbols for many Iraqis, just as vexing were the smaller, often untold incidents of civilians shot dead at checkpoints or near convoys by nervous soldiers fearful that they were about to be attacked, said Peter Van Buren, a State Department official who worked with Baghdad’s Provincial Reconstruction Team in 2009-10. When he arrived, he said, he was struck by the disconnect between Iraqi and U.S. perceptions of the war.
“We tried to convince them we were the good guys and that we’d got rid of Saddam, but given all the killings that had happened, that never hung together,” he said, recalling an occasion when he distributed fruit trees to farmers in a rural area. One refused to accept the seedling and spat on the ground. His son had been killed accidentally by U.S. forces, the farmer said, “and you’re giving me a fruit tree?”
“It’s in the air, it’s in the water, it’s the background music to what we do,” Van Buren said. “The Iraqis remember it even if we don’t. It will be a very dark legacy, and it’s one that will follow us around the Middle East.”
Officers who served acknowledge that such killings soured relations but say there’s little that can be done to avoid civilian casualties in urban warfare. In instances such as the Haditha killings, Iraqis “have every right to be bitter,” said retired Col. Peter Mansoor, who commanded a combat brigade in Baghdad in 2003-04 and then returned as executive officer to the top U.S. commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, during the surge of U.S. troops in 2007-08.
“In most cases, the circumstances are a lot cloudier,” he said. “The enemy does not wear uniforms. U.S. forces are taking fire, and they hit civilians. It’s harder to assign blame.”
On two occasions in 2003, soldiers under his command killed civilians by mistake — once when a family of six drove unwittingly into the middle of a firefight with insurgents, and later at a checkpoint when a family rushing a child to the hospital failed to stop.
Troops learned lessons as the war went on, he said. They learned to construct checkpoints in ways that made boundaries clearer. After the surge, when soldiers went to live in Iraqi neighborhoods, they learned to better distinguish friend from foe.
“I’m sure those families will never forgive the killings,” he said of the six civilians shot dead by his soldiers. “But when you look at it from the soldiers’ point of view, it was justified. It’s very hard, and obviously it led to a lot of ill will.”