By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 25, 2009
ABU GHRAIB, Iraq -- When insurgents attacked an American convoy with AK-47 rounds and a couple of grenades on a dusty highway in a Baghdad suburb this week, U.S. soldiers returned fire, chased the suspects through narrow alleyways and raided houses.
Tuesday's clash killed two Iraqi adults and a 14-year-old and wounded four people, including two children.
When the shooting subsided, another confrontation began. A senior Iraqi army commander who arrived at the scene concluded that the Americans had fired indiscriminately at civilians and ordered his men to take the U.S. soldiers into custody. The U.S. military said the soldiers had acted in self-defense and had sought to avoid civilian casualties; U.S. commanders at the scene persuaded the Iraqis to back down.
The incident, apparently the first time a senior Iraqi commander has sought to detain U.S. soldiers, signals a potential escalation of tensions between U.S. and Iraqi forces trying to find a new equilibrium as Iraq assumes more responsibility for its security.
Both sides have starkly different interpretations of vaguely worded restrictions on the authority and movement of U.S. forces that went into effect more than three weeks ago. Those differences, and the friction they are causing in U.S.-Iraqi military relations, have been sharply underscored by the Abu Ghraib attack, which appears to be the first time U.S. soldiers have used deadly force since the new restrictions were imposed.
Word of the incident quickly spread among U.S. soldiers in Baghdad. Several said it heightened concerns that the split-second decisions they make now have the potential to draw a sharp rebuke from Iraq's increasingly assertive security forces. And reaction from Iraqi military officials seemed to confirm those fears.
"What happened is a crime," the Iraqi commander said Friday during a brief interview in his office. "Civilians were killed."
The commander and a senior Iraqi police official, who also characterized the American response as a "crime," spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing ministry regulations that bar them from speaking to the news media without written approval.
Maj. David Shoupe, a U.S. military spokesman, said the two slain men were assailants.
"The response of the [U.S.] patrol was within the rules of engagement, appropriate and proportionate to the attack on them," Shoupe said in an e-mail. "It is important to note that the patrol used aimed fire to kill their two attackers -- stopping the attack that could have resulted in many more [U.S.] and Iraqi deaths."
Hospital and police officials said the two wounded children were 9 and 12.
Conflicting accounts of attacks involving U.S. forces in Iraq are common, and versions are often skewed by how the troops are viewed in the area.
Interviews with residents, hospital officials and Iraqi army police commanders in the suburb of Abu Ghraib suggest that conventional wisdom holds the Americans killed civilians.
Many in this former insurgent hotbed are seething.
"They shot randomly," said Hussein Neda, 47, the father of one of the slain men. "They were running with weapons, and they killed my son before we got to him."
Neda's 9-year-old son, Sufian, said he was wounded when a bullet grazed his left shoulder.
"I hate the Americans," the boy said quietly. "I never liked them, even before this happened."
Sami al-Fahad, a doctor, was on duty at Abu Ghraib Hospital on Tuesday when the victims of the crossfire arrived.
"This is an old habit of the U.S. Army," he said nonchalantly, sitting behind a desk as he checked a man's blood pressure. "They kill the people in the street, even if they are civilians or children."
As the wounded were being treated, the father of one of the victims, awaiting news of his son, began chanting "tha'ar, tha'ar," which means revenge in Arabic.
A few months ago, such an incident probably would not have been more than a footnote in this six-year-old war with no front lines, in which U.S. troops have had to fend off hundreds of attacks in crowded areas, where discerning between assailants and bystanders is sometimes impossible.
But because the conduct of American troops increasingly is viewed through a political prism here, and because Iraqi and U.S. officials remain at odds over how the security agreement should be applied in urban areas, commanders from both countries are closely reviewing the incident and its ripple effects.
In recent days, Iraqis have questioned American soldiers at checkpoints in Baghdad, at times preventing them from driving into neighborhoods. In one incident, an Iraqi soldier drew a weapon on a U.S. armored vehicle, American officials said.
Senior U.S. commanders have played down the tension, saying that the relationship remains fundamentally strong and that "hiccups" are to be expected at a time of transition. But soldiers and junior commanders called the situation alarming.
"I worry that an Iraqi army soldier will shoot at my truck with his 20 AK-47 rounds and my gunner will shoot back with his 100 50-caliber rounds instead of ducking down," a U.S. officer said on the condition of anonymity.
Another officer said U.S. soldiers have been taken aback by the sudden intransigence of their Iraqi partners.
The Iraqi army seems "more and more willing to conduct operations on their own and less willing to accept our operational guidance," said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But they continue to look to [us] for support. Their independence is like a 16-year-old who just got his license and doesn't want to listen anymore but still wants you to pay for the gas and the insurance and bail them out of jail" when they mess up.
The police major overseeing the Iraqi investigation into the incident said he knows who the real culprits are -- and intends to arrest them soon.
"All the ones who were shot are innocent," he said, sitting on a sofa in his office while smoking a cigarette.
He said he holds no ill will toward the Americans and appreciates the training and support they have given Iraq's security forces. But he said he does not want his men going on missions with U.S. forces.
"We don't need them," he said. After a pause, he added: "except for fuel."
Special correspondent Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.