WASHINGTON — U.S. soldiers have killed or wounded 429 Iraqi civilians at checkpoints or near patrols and convoys during the past year, according to military statistics compiled in Iraq and obtained by McClatchy Newspapers.
The statistics are the first official accounting of civilian shootings since the war began, and while they seem small compared with the thousands who've died in Iraq's violence, they show the difficulty that the U.S. has in fulfilling its vow to protect civilians.
The numbers cover what the military calls escalation-of-force incidents, in which American troops fire at civilians who've come too close or have approached checkpoints too quickly. In the months since U.S. commanders have dispatched more troops to the field — ostensibly to secure Iraqi communities — the number of Iraqis killed and injured in such incidents has spiked, the statistics show.
Pentagon officials have declined repeatedly to reveal the numbers of civilian deaths and injuries caused by American troops. The escalation-of-force statistics, however, were part of a recent briefing given to Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq. A person familiar with the briefing provided the statistics to McClatchy.
They cover 3,200 incidents since July 2006 in which U.S. troops fired warning shots at Iraqi civilians. Such incidents led to injury or death 36 times a month on average — more than once a day.
No similar numbers were available for previous periods. U.S. officials say the number of such incidents is declining.
Still, the pattern of increased civilian injuries and deaths during periods of heightened American military activities was obvious in the 12 months of escalation-of-force statistics made available to McClatchy.
Last August, for example, 26 Iraqi civilians were killed or injured in such incidents. The number rose to 41 the following month, as the U.S. began moving troops into some of Baghdad's most troubled neighborhoods as part of Operation Forward Together, last year's Baghdad security plan.
In February, the first month of the current troop buildup, 46 Iraqi civilians were killed or injured, the highest monthly toll for the past year. Last July, the U.S. killed or injured 22 civilians, the lowest month of the year.
The statistics don't include instances of American soldiers killing civilians during raids, arrests or in the midst of battle with armed groups, and it remains unclear how the U.S. military tracks such information. Often rotating units use their own systems, and there have been several incidents of soldiers not reporting the deaths of civilians, most notably the November 2005 shooting of 24 civilians in the northern Iraqi town of Haditha.
Civilian casualties have been controversial in Iraq since the beginning of the war, when several bloody checkpoint incidents drew attention to the dangers to Iraqi civilians from military roadblocks. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki complained last year about damages inflicted by American actions, and some U.S. officials have said they think that such deaths helped fuel support for the insurgency.
In a June 2006 interview with McClatchy, Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who was then the No. 2 commander in Iraq, said: "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, who became the senior military aide to Defense Secretary Robert Gates earlier this year, ordered investigations last year into all escalation-of-force incidents that led to serious injuries, death or property damage higher than $10,000. Before that, investigations had varied within military units rotating into Iraq. It's unclear whether those investigations continue.
Sarah Holewinski, the executive director of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, a Washington group that advocates for civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the military needed to investigate each incident, not simply keep a tally.
"They say they are reducing the number of causalities. But they have not backed up their claim," Holewinski said. "What steps did the military take before the escalation-of-force incident? What are they doing to reduce the number? What happens afterward to the family?"
U.S. soldiers traditionally have used hand signals or signs to tell civilians to stop. If that doesn't work, they fire warning shots. If the vehicles still are moving too close, they're authorized to kill.
Iraqi civilians have complained that makeshift checkpoints, coupled with unpredictable patrols and convoys, make it difficult to know when troops are in their communities and how they should interact with them. And they say their immediate reaction to any gunshot — warning shot or not — is to flee, not stop.
A Government Accountability Office report in May found that the military has disbursed nearly $31 million in condolence payments to families in Iraq and Afghanistan for deaths, injuries or property damage. The maximum payment is $2,500 per person or injury, indicating that the payouts covered at least 12,400 incidents.