Some Iraqi civilians targeted just because they drove white Toyotas

NAJAF, Iraq—As life returns to normal in this city of 700,000, few people notice the burned-out cars that litter the road between Najaf and Bushmaster, the Army combat support camp eight miles south of town.

When the war started, the charred bodies in these vehicles caught everyone's attention. But after a few days, the corpses were removed, leaving the skeletons of about 40 white Toyota pickup trucks, vans and sedans.

If anyone asked why these vehicles were blown up, U.S. soldiers offered a one-word explanation: "Fedayeen," referring to Saddam Hussein's paramilitary squads who attacked coalition troops and supply lines from white Toyotas with machine guns, rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

U.S. troops killed hundreds of Fedayeen in the first weeks of the war.

Many people in Najaf, however, drove white Toyota pickups, vans or sedans—a fact perhaps not spelled out to the troops who blew up the vehicles. So these burned-out vehicles are not always memorials to U.S. troops defending themselves, but evidence of tragic accidents.

On March 26, during a fierce sandstorm, farmer Abbas Inaad, 28, was returning from town when he became one of these mistakes. So many blown-up vehicles litter the roadside that the road between Najaf and Bushmaster looks like a spare-parts junkyard. In one quarter-mile stretch near a crossroads and a bridge, where U.S. soldiers attacked Inaad, there are three Toyota pickups, two Toyota vans and one Toyota sedan.

Farmers in the area cannot say which Toyota was Inaad's. They know the three trucks had young men in them: farmers, construction workers and, perhaps, Fedayeen in one. They say the two burned vans carried families with small children, and in the taxi was an elderly couple. The farmers show visitors the charred human bones inside the vehicles and the shells and rounds nearby. They know the wounded were taken in Iraqi ambulances and by the U.S. military, but they do not know where.

More than a month after the accident, Inaad is still on the fifth floor of Najaf Teaching Hospital, formerly Saddam Teaching Hospital. Shot in the gut, he has had a colostomy. He uses an ordinary plastic bag connected to a tube with a rubber band because the hospital has no colostomy bags. He has a tube down his throat and one in his nose and is too weak to walk. His doctor, Mohammed Al Shammery, cannot say when or if he will recover.

But he does say that Inaad is not the only case of "mistaken Toyota identity."

"I have treated 10 to 15 civilians who were in white Toyotas—mostly pickups—injured by American soldiers," he said.

Inaad did not understand the instructions the soldiers yelled in English. He thought they cleared him, and he drove on. Then they gave the order for tanks to fire.

From the Army's point of view, every precaution was taken to avoid such tragedies: Legal officers and commanders passed out "rules of engagement" cards to the combat troops telling them to have a "reasonable certainty" that they were firing on a legitimate "military target." If they had a question about whether someone was a civilian, they were to shout "halt" and give the universal hand signal: both palms pushing outward. If the "possible target" didn't stop, they were to yell the command in Arabic.

But the written instructions in the "rules of engagement" cards said the Arabic word for "halt" was pronounced "cough," when it is pronounced "kif."

At Bushmaster, soldiers practiced saying "cough" and reading the instructions over and over to avoid attacking civilians.

"But we did not understand this word `cough,'" Inaad whispers in Arabic. "And we did not understand that our cars make us the enemy."


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

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