U.S. Airstrikes Take Toll on Civilians

Iraqis mourn relatives awaiting burial after being killed last month in fighting near the town of Qaim in western Iraq.
Iraqis mourn relatives awaiting burial after being killed last month in fighting near the town of Qaim in western Iraq. (For The Washington Post)

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By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 24, 2005

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 the attacks.


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