In Iraq, a Surge in U.S. Airstrikes

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Since clashes broke out in eastern Baghdad in late March the U.S. Army has fired more than 200 hellfire missiles in Baghdad, killing over 251 people. A pilot describes his experiences.

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By Ernesto Londoño and Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 23, 2008

CAMP TAJI, Iraq -- From an Apache helicopter, Capt. Ben Katzenberger's battlefield resembles a vast mosaic of tiny brown boxes.

"The city looks like a bucket of Legos dumped out on the ground," the 26-year-old pilot said. "It's brown Legos, no color. It's really dense and hard to pick things out because everything looks the same."

He uses a powerful lens to zoom in on tiny silhouettes, trying to identify people with "hostile intent" among hundreds of ordinary citizens in Baghdad.

In recent weeks, Katzenberger and other pilots have dramatically increased their use of helicopter-fired missiles against enemy fighters, often in densely populated areas. Since late March, the military has fired more than 200 Hellfire missiles in the capital, compared with just six missiles fired in the previous three months.

The military says the tactic has saved the lives of ground troops and prevented attacks, but the strikes have also killed and wounded civilians, provoking criticism from Iraqis.

On Wednesday, eight people, including two children, were killed when a U.S. helicopter opened fire on a group of Iraqis traveling to a U.S. detention center to greet a man who was being released from custody, Iraqi officials said.

The U.S. military said in a statement that it had targeted men linked to a suicide bombing network. "Unfortunately, two children were killed when the other occupants of the vehicle, in which they were riding, exhibited hostile intent," the statement said.

U.S. officials say they go to great lengths to avoid harming civilians in airstrikes.

"It's not Hollywood and it's not 110 percent perfect," said Col. Timothy J. Edens, the commander of the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade, of the accuracy of his unit's strikes. "It is as precise as very hardworking soldiers and commanders can make it. These criminals do not operate in a clean battle space. It is occupied by civilians, law-abiding Iraqis."

Those civilians include people like Zahara Fadhil, a 10-year-old girl with a tiny frame and long brown hair. Relatives said she was wounded by a missile on April 20 at approximately 8 p.m. in Baghdad's Shiite enclave of Sadr City. The U.S. military said it fired a Hellfire missile in Zahara's neighborhood at that time, targeting men who were seen loading rockets into a sedan.

Her face drained of color and her legs scarred by shrapnel, Zahara spoke haltingly when asked what she thought of U.S. troops.

"They kill people," she said. Lying in bed, she gasped for air before continuing. "They should leave Iraq now."


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