BAGHDAD, Iraq —
BAGHDAD, Iraq—The death of civilians at the hands of U.S. troops has fueled the insurgency in Iraq, according to a top-level U.S. military commander, who said U.S. officials began keeping records of these deaths last summer.
Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who as head of the Multi-National Force-Iraq is the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, said the number of civilian dead and wounded is an important measurement of how effectively U.S. forces are interacting with the Iraqi people.
"We have people who were on the fence or supported us who in the last two years or three years have in fact decided to strike out against us. And you have to ask: Why is that? And I would argue in many instances we are our own worst enemy," Chiarelli told Knight Ridder.
Chiarelli said he reviews the figures daily. If fewer civilians are killed, "I think that will make our soldiers safer," Chiarelli said.
U.S. officials previously have said they don't keep track of civilian causalities, and Iraqi officials stopped releasing numbers of U.S.-caused casualties after Knight Ridder reported in September 2004 that the Iraqi Ministry of Health had attributed more than twice as many civilian deaths to the actions of U.S. forces than to "terrorist" attacks during the period from June 2004 to September 2004.
Chiarelli declined to release the numbers, but he said that U.S. soldiers are killing and injuring fewer Iraqi civilians this year in so-called "escalation of force" incidents at checkpoints and near convoys than they did in July of last year, when officials first started tracking the statistic.
"Escalation of force incidents" typically involve a U.S. soldier giving a verbal warning or hand signal to a driver approaching a checkpoint or convoy. The situation escalates if the driver fails to stop, with the soldier firing a warning shot, and then shooting to kill.
Chiarelli made his comments Saturday during a wide-ranging interview. Knight Ridder delayed publishing the comments as it tried to obtain military records detailing civilian deaths. Chiarelli would not say how many civilians have been killed overall or what percentage of civilian deaths occur at checkpoints or near convoys.
But a military official who's not authorized to release the numbers and asked not to be named, said there were 3,000 so-called "escalation of force" incidents from July 2005, when officials began studiously tracking such information, to Dec. 31, 2005.
Of those, 16 percent led to a civilian being killed or injured, the official said.
During the first five months of this year, 1,700 such incidents were reported. Of those 12 percent led to a civilian being killed or injured, the official said.
Civilian casualties have been a frequent issue almost since the day U.S. troops invaded Iraq more than three years ago. But U.S. officials have voiced particular concern in recent weeks after investigators began probing allegations that U.S. Marines killed 24 civilians, including women and children, during a sweep of the Sunni city of Haditha Nov. 19. Residents said the Marines killed the civilians in their homes in retaliation for a roadside bomb that killed a Marine.
That investigation is continuing, but U.S. officials on Wednesday announced criminal prosecutions in two other cases where U.S. troops were accused of killing Iraqi civilians. The Marine Corps announced that seven Marines and a Navy corpsman had been charged with kidnapping, murder and conspiracy in the April 26 death of an Iraqi farmer in the town of Hamdania, while officials in Baghdad said that a fourth soldier had been charged with murder and conspiracy in the deaths of three Iraqi detainees last month.
But the intentional targeting of Iraqis by U.S. troops is only one aspect of the controversy surrounding civilian casualties. Iraqis have been far more vocal about deaths at poorly marked checkpoints or because Iraqi civilians don't understand the military's rules of engagement.
Some of the deaths have received widespread publicity, most recently when U.S. soldiers killed a pregnant woman and a relative as they raced to a hospital in Samarra last month.
Chiarelli said he's not aware of a soldier not firing at an approaching suicide bomber in an effort to be more careful. Instead, he believes soldiers are paying closer attention to whether a family or a lone man are in the car and whether the trunk of the car appears heavy, as though it were carrying explosives.
It's unclear what impact the presence of Iraqi troops, who increasingly take the lead at checkpoints, may have had on the decline. But Chiarelli said he believes U.S. soldiers understand how important it is to reduce civilian casualties.
"It's the sergeants, the young non-commissioned officers who understand they have to change their mindset from what Iraq was just two years ago to what it is today," Chiarelli said.
Chiarelli said it's important that soldiers, particularly sergeants, understand that their behavior toward Iraqis affects the way Iraqis view their newly elected government.
"That government's legitimacy will be based in part on how we act," he said, "because we are invited guests in that country."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.