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Shootings by U.S. at Iraq Checkpoints Questioned

By R. Jeffrey Smith and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 7, 2005; Page A01

The deadly shooting of an Italian intelligence officer by U.S. troops at a checkpoint near Baghdad on Friday was one of many incidents in which civilians have been killed by mistake at checkpoints in Iraq, including local police officers, women and children, according to military records, U.S. officials and human rights groups.

U.S. soldiers have fired on the occupants of many cars approaching their positions over the past year and a half, only to discover that the people they killed were not suicide bombers or attackers but Iraqi civilians. They did so while operating under rules of engagement that the military has classified and under a legal doctrine that grants U.S. troops immunity from civil liability for misjudgment.

Italian intelligence officer Nicola Calipari, shown in a 2002 photo, was killed Friday by U.S. troops. (Il Messaggero Via AP)

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Human rights groups have complained that the military's rules of engagement for handling local citizens at checkpoints are too permissive. The groups have accused U.S. forces of making inadequate efforts to safeguard civilians and to comply with laws of war that prohibit the use of excessive or indiscriminate force and permit deadly action only when soldiers' lives are clearly threatened.

The military has responded that in a time of widespread suicide bombings, precautions that troops take to protect themselves are fully justified.

But the circumstances of Friday's shooting of Italian military intelligence officer Nicola Calipari made it particularly vulnerable to calamity, a military source said as he divulged new details of how the car in which Calipari and a newly freed hostage, Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, came to be attacked.

The automobile was traversing onto a route -- the road to the airport -- where soldiers have been killed in shootings and by roadside bombs. U.S. soldiers had established an impromptu evening checkpoint at the entrance to the road about 90 minutes earlier and had stopped other vehicles. They knew a high-level embassy official would be moving to the airport on that road, and their aim was to support this movement.

But no specific coordination occurred between those involved in Sgrena's rescue and the military unit responsible for the checkpoint, according to the source, who said he cannot be named because the military's investigation into the incident is continuing.

Soldiers at the checkpoint have told U.S. military officers that they flashed lights, used hand signals and fired warning shots in an effort to stop the car, which they believed was traveling at more than 50 mph, a typical speed for that road. But Sgrena, who had just been released by Iraqi captors, recalled later that the car was not traveling very fast and that soldiers started firing "right after lighting" a spotlight -- a decision she said was not justified. Sgrena was wounded by shrapnel in the U.S. barrage.

The absence of advance communication between the Italians and the U.S. soldiers at the checkpoint appears to have put the occupants of the car in grave jeopardy, given what many U.S. officials describe as the military's standard practice of firing at onrushing cars from their checkpoints in Iraq.

"In my view, the main contributing factor was a lack of prior coordination with the ground unit," the source said. "If requested, we would have resourced and supported this mission very differently."

Military officials in Iraq have said for two days that they cannot answer questions about U.S. rules of engagement because of a need to keep insurgents off guard. Officials have not said whether these rules have changed since the insurgency in Iraq worsened in late 2003. They also have declined to estimate how many civilians such as Calipari have been killed accidentally by U.S. forces -- at checkpoints or elsewhere in Iraq.

But Army documents indicate that the 3rd Infantry Division -- the military unit that includes the troops responsible for shooting Calipari -- was involved in other shootings of civilians at checkpoints. In April 2004, Army criminal investigators asked a sergeant serving in the division if he and his fellow soldiers had shot at women and children in cars, and the soldier answered, "Yes." Asked why, he replied, "They didn't respond to the signs [we gave], the presence of troops or warning shots."

The soldier, whose name was redacted in documents released by the Army on Friday in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, went on to say: "We fired warning shots at everyone, they would speed up to come at us, and we would shoot them. You couldn't tell who was in the car from where we were, we found that out later. . . . We didn't go through the cars digging around for stuff, we would just look in and see they were dead and could see there were women inside."

Another member of the division told investigators that he also saw women and children shot while approaching checkpoints.

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