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Angry Iraqis tell of U.S. troops making fatal errors

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Dr. Talib Abdul Jabar Al Sayeed was asleep at home with 11 relatives, he said, when U.S. troops surrounded his house, stormed his gate and began firing.

At least three dozen American soldiers blazed away for more than 60 minutes in the early morning hours of July 31, the British-trained physician recounted recently, pointing to the hundreds of bullet holes that still mark his stately home.

"I shouted at them with all my strength to stop shooting," said Al Sayeed, 62. "I will open the door. Please give me a chance."

Eventually, Al Sayeed said, the commanding officer told him he was sorry: They had raided the wrong house. But not before a soldier burst in and struck Al Sayeed with a rifle butt, knocking him down. The soldier kicked him in the ribs—an X-ray later showed they were cracked—and others bound his hands with plastic cuffs as his wife and young nieces cowered in the next room. They also took his three grown sons in for questioning, and they remain in a military jail in the south of Iraq.

Three weeks after they were first asked about it, military spokesmen said they were unable to track down details of the incident, so it's unknown whether the military disputes Al Sayeed's account.

But his story is one of dozens of tales that angry Iraqis tell of sometimes tragic errors by U.S. troops. Iraqis and international observers say the American military's tactics—sometimes directing overwhelming force at houses filled with women and children—have resulted in the detentions of hundreds of innocent people and the deaths of others, although how many is unknown.

They say the military does little to document the raids or the mistakes, and that the mistaken raids and civilian deaths are creating new enemies as fast as the old ones are eliminated.

Military officials acknowledge that there have been mistakes, but say that raids, arrests and accidental deaths of civilians, while regrettable, are the harsh realities of guerrilla war.

They note that U.S. troops are facing the most difficult sort of military task imaginable: trying to stamp out a determined enemy who blends in with the local population.

Coalition soldiers have been hit with an average of 12 guerrilla attacks per day. Snipers fire at them from buildings, grenades are dropped on them from overpasses and their Humvees explode in sheets of fire after running over hidden mines.

Seventy coalition soldiers have been killed by hostile fire since May 1, when the conventional war ended. Dozens of Iraqi civilians died in car bomb attacks on the Jordanian embassy, the United Nations compound and a mosque in Najaf.

"My soldiers are operating in a low-intensity conflict environment," said Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. commander in Iraq. "And they're getting attacked every day—at service stations . . . in hospitals, on the road—and of course, they're going to be prepared to defend themselves and fight."

Added Lt. Col. Guy Shields, the outgoing chief military spokesman in Iraq: "We know that some innocent civilians have been killed, and each one of those is a tragedy."

In one sense, Al Sayeed was lucky. He and his family survived.

U.S.-led coalition troops have shot and killed at least 49 and possibly as many as 72 civilian noncombatants since the conventional war ended, according to a Knight Ridder review of reports first compiled by Iraq Body Count, a London research group that calls U.S. troops "occupiers" and bases its estimates on published or broadcast reports by news agencies and human rights groups.

The U.S. military says it doesn't count civilian deaths.

Asked about the issue at a recent news conference, L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator for Iraq, said, "The loss of life is a tragedy for anyone involved, but the numbers are really very low."

When questioned about the basis for that assertion, Bremer acknowledged that he couldn't say how many civilians coalition troops had killed.

For many Iraqis, it's a painful irony: As American civilian officials try to teach them about democratic values and respect for human rights, heavily armed U.S. soldiers storm into their homes, arrest people and kill some of them by mistake, all without public accountability or judicial review.

"It is the same scenario every day," said Eman Ahmed Khammas, the director of Occupation Watch, a Baghdad-based advocacy group. "The number of civilian casualties is increasing. But there are no statistics."

Over the past few months, a number of incidents have become public:

_U.S. troops killed an 18-year-old woman when they tossed a grenade into a house during a raid Sept. 1 in Mahmudiya, south of Baghdad.

_A Reuters journalist was shot and killed near a Baghdad prison Aug. 17 after U.S. troops mistook his television camera for a grenade launcher.

_Two uniformed Iraqi policemen were shot and killed Aug. 9 while pursuing criminals in Baghdad.

_Five people, including an 8-year-old girl and three of her family members, were gunned down Aug. 7 when they ran into an unmarked U.S. checkpoint during an evening raid in Baghdad's Slakh neighborhood.

_A mother of six was shot and killed Aug. 1 in Baghdad after the family car broke down near where U.S. troops were attacked.

_Five people were shot and killed July 28 when they ran into poorly marked roadblocks during a raid in Baghdad's Mansour district.

In all those cases, military officials said they'd concluded that soldiers were acting within the rules of engagement, which authorize a soldier to fire when he feels his life is threatened. Still, officials said concerns about the spate of deaths at traffic checkpoints had prompted them to compensate some of the victims' families.

Capt. Mike Friel, a coalition spokesman, said the coalition had paid a total of $68,000 to relatives in nine wrongful-death cases since the war began in March. A total of 74 wrongful-death claims have been filed, 23 have been denied and the rest are still under investigation, he said.

Friel didn't respond to further inquiries seeking details about the claims that were paid.

Commanders said they also had tried in recent weeks to be more precise and less aggressive when raiding homes and detaining residents.

The military says it has imprisoned about 5,500 people, most of whom are held without access to lawyers or relatives.

Among them are Al Sayeed's sons. They told their mother during a recent visit that they have never been interrogated and haven't been told what they are suspected of or when they might be released. Military officials didn't respond to questions about them.

There is no evidence that coalition soldiers intentionally target innocent civilians. What critics say, in essence, is that some U.S. soldiers are overwhelmed by the complexities of fighting a guerrilla war.

An officer of the 3rd Infantry Division, which occupied Baghdad just after fighting some of the major battles of the war, described the soldiers' burden in a "lessons learned" report for the army in late April.

"(They) have been asked to go from killing the enemy to protecting and interacting, and back to killing again," he wrote. "The constant shift in mental posture greatly complicates things for the average soldier. The soldiers are blurred and confused about the rules of engagement, which continues to raise questions about force protection while at checkpoints and conducting patrols. How does the soldier know exactly what the rule of engagement is?"

He added: "Soldiers who have just conducted combat against dark skinned personnel wearing civilian clothes have difficulty trusting dark skinned personnel wearing civilian clothes."

The most common complaints among Iraqis and international observers are that soldiers fire indiscriminately in crowded civilian areas; they frequently mount raids based on faulty information; and they set up poorly marked checkpoints and fire without warning on cars that approach them without stopping.

Many of the worst incidents have happened in Baghdad, which is patrolled by the 1st Armored Division, whose troops are trained for tank battles, not police work.

Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, a research center for national-security studies, points out that most U.S. troops in Iraq aren't well trained in counterinsurgency warfare.

"Some of this is inevitable," he said. "When you have young men and women who don't have a lot of experience, they overreact."

Sanchez expressed concern last month about what he called the military's "iron-fisted tactics" in some of its raids. The general said he had begun encouraging commanders to surround their target areas first, then knock on the door and ask permission to search.

But military officials said coalition soldiers still would kick down doors and go in shooting when they thought it was necessary.

Officials declined to explain how they decide what level of force to use when raiding a private home, except to say that it's "based on intelligence." But a raid can be prompted by a tip from a single informant, and "unfortunately, there are some raids that go awry," spokeswoman Spc. Nicole Thompson said recently. "Sometimes you get a case of, you know, this guy doesn't like that guy, and he makes a phone call."

To those whose homes are raided by mistake, or whose relatives are killed or detained for months without word of their fate, the tactics are indistinguishable from the kind of thing that used to happen under Saddam Hussein.

"I loved the Americans before this happened," Al Sayeed said. "But now I hate them. Before, I wanted all of my sons to go to America to finish their studies. But now there is no way I will let them go. This is the freedom they promise us? This is democracy?"

Zahra Khalid Sabry—and hundreds of her relatives, friends and neighbors—are asking the same questions.

"They killed him in front of my eyes," Sabry said, sobbing, on the day her male relatives brought her husband's body back from the morgue. "I tried to kiss him but they wouldn't let me."

Her house spilled over with more than 200 mourners, who could barely contain their fury as they told visitors what happened when U.S. troops came crashing through their doors at 1 a.m. Aug. 11, four days after Sanchez promised changes in tactics.

Upstairs, the bullet holes were still visible in the bedroom door, as was the crimson blood stain on the mattress. Women in black head scarves wailed, and men stared with hard eyes.

Sabry said she was in bed with her husband, Farid Abdul Khahir, 23, after celebrating their one-year wedding anniversary. She heard loud noises outside. Khahir, thinking the house was being attacked by looters, pulled his rifle from under the bed—most Iraqis have at least one firearm in their homes—and fired out the window.

Soldiers bolted up the stairs and fired at least seven shots through the closed bedroom door, bullet holes show, hitting Khahir in the leg and torso, Sabry said. The soldiers took him to a hospital, where he died. The next day, other soldiers came to the house and retrieved the bullets, relatives said.

A translator with the Americans told them an informant had fingered Khahir as an anti-coalition fighter. His relatives said he used to be in Saddam's Fedayeen militia before the war, but quit and had been working at odd construction jobs.

"We've never done anything against the Americans, never," said Ali Khalid,16, a cousin who was sleeping on the roof during the raid.

Military officials didn't respond to repeated requests for comment about the incident.

"Please, tell the world what happened," said Khalid's sister, Khalid Abdul Amir. "He would have gone with them. Why did they do this? Why?"


(Dilanian reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-RAIDS