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Shootings by U.S. at Iraq Checkpoints Questioned

"Basically, we were at a checkpoint, we had two Arabic signs that said to turn around or be shot. Once [they passed] . . . the first sign, they fired a warning shot. If they passed the second sign, they shot the vehicle. Sometimes there would be women and children in the car, but usually it was soldiers."

"Sometimes it bothers me," the man said. "What if they couldn't read the signs? But then what if they had a bomb in the car? We fired warning shots and they kept coming, so I think we did the right thing."

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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A third man in the unit separately told investigators that a colleague shot his weapon at "a hostile vehicle and it missed and hit a truck behind it, which housed a group of people."

The Army's investigation was begun after assertions that the unit had committed multiple war crimes and fired indiscriminately at civilians in 2003, but investigators concluded last July that there "was insufficient evidence to prove or disprove" allegations of wrongdoing. They said women and children had indeed been shot near checkpoints, but on a presumption -- which turned out to be wrong -- that they were combatants. The Army decided the soldiers who fired would be held blameless.

A senior official of the U.S.-led military task force in Iraq, briefing reporters in August on the issue of compensation for damages to Iraqis and wrongful killings, spelled out the legal basis for this position. He said that "when an individual approaches a checkpoint" and is fired upon, "that is a combat activity of United States forces" and thus is excluded from civil liability or compensation under U.S. law that grants up to $15,000 per incident.

U.S. officials say that in those cases in which some U.S. payment has been made, it comes from money allocated to field commanders for "sympathy payments" of as much as $2,500 per incident or killed victim. The family of the Italian officer killed Friday has no standing to seek legal redress.

Human Rights Watch published a lengthy report on civilian casualties in Iraq in October 2003, which detailed incidents in which 11 Iraqis died at checkpoints manned by other U.S. units -- including two policemen in an unmarked car in hot pursuit of suspected terrorists. The group called for more efforts to warn of checkpoint dangers, including the use of better signs and lights, more interpreters, and a public education campaign. News accounts have detailed at least 14 other deaths of civilians at checkpoints.

The group also reprinted excerpts from an Army task force's internal study that described its soldiers as untrained and unprepared to conduct checkpoint operations. The study asked: "How does the soldier know exactly what the rule of engagement is" when shifting from combat to policing? "Soldiers who have just conducted combat against dark-skinned personnel wearing civilian clothes have difficulty trusting dark-skinned personnel wearing civilian clothes."

Nicole Choueiry, spokeswoman on the Middle East region at Amnesty International in London, said the shooting of Calipari "is not the first incident. It came to light because she [Sgrena] is a journalist. We have heard of many incidents involving the deaths of civilians in unclear situations."

She said that although "U.S. troops have a duty to protect themselves, this must not be done at the expense of civilians and it should be done within the rules of law."

She said that the main purpose of the occupation is to protect civilians, not place them in jeopardy, and that her group "calls again on the U.S. and multinational troops in Iraq to clarify their rules of engagement and to give assurances that the international law which governs armed conflict situations is not broken."

Staff Sgt. Nick Minecci, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, responded that checkpoints are extremely dangerous and that because of the threat of bombs, "plus insurgents driving by and shooting, the troops have to maintain a constant level of awareness. It's a pretty scary situation to have a vehicle bearing down on you." He said that military convoys must have prior military clearance but that he was not sure about diplomatic convoys.

Researcher Karl Evanzz contributed to this report.

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