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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Rules Of War Evolving As U.S. Troops Encounter Iraqi Fighters In Civilian Clothes

  • Ron Synovitz

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is embedded with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division. From the central Iraqi city of Najaf, he reports on how U.S. troops are adapting their rules of engagement to better defend themselves against potential attacks by Iraqis in civilian clothes.

Najaf, 28 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- During the battle for Talil airfield near Nasiriyah last weekend, two Iraqi soldiers dressed in civilian clothes charged on a motorcycle straight at a U.S. scout patrol. The Iraqi soldier on the back of the motorcycle was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher. But the U.S. machine gunner on the roof of the scouts' Humvee didn't see the weapon.

He hesitated for a moment, until an urgent voice on the battalion's radio network said, "He's got an RPG." Just as the Iraqi was raising the RPG to fire, the American gunner shot a burst from his machine gun, killing both of the men on the motorcycle.

In the battle for Samawah a few days later, about 20 Iraqi commandoes patrolled a divided highway in a dust storm with RPGs in the back of two pickup trucks. They were all wearing black civilian robes. When they suddenly stumbled upon a column of U.S. tanks and troop carriers in the dust storm, they started waving wildly as if they were happy to see the Americans driving on the opposite side of the highway.

Once again, the U.S. soldiers hesitated momentarily until they saw the silhouettes of RPG launchers through the haze. The U.S. tanks and gunners then opened fire at point-blank range, killing a number of the Iraqis.

These are the kinds of incidents that have occurred repeatedly across southern and central Iraq in the past week as the U.S. Army has been advancing north toward Baghdad. Under U.S. rules of engagement, American soldiers are forbidden from shooting at anyone in civilian clothes unless they can confirm the Iraqis are carrying weapons.

The rules of war spring from the 19th-century Geneva conventions and say, in part, that fighters must be clad in uniforms and bear their weapons openly in order to meet "lawful combatant" status.

U.S. officials in recent days have repeatedly accused the Iraqi regime of exploiting the rules of war by dressing soldiers in civilian clothes and using other forms of deception in order to approach and attack U.S. troops. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on 25 March: "The regime has committed acts of treachery on the battlefield: dressing their forces as liberated civilians, sending soldiers out waving white flags and feigning surrender with the goal of drawing coalition forces into the ambushes, using Red Cross vehicles to courier military instructions. These are serious violations of the laws of war."

Of the hundreds of prisoners of war captured by the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division during the first week of war in Iraq, most Iraqi soldiers have been wearing civilian clothes, even though almost all of these Iraqis were captured with military identification in their possession. Some American rank-and-file soldiers say civilian robes are beginning to look like the official Iraqi military uniform to them.

But Iraqi officials dismiss such remarks, saying many Iraqi civilians have taken up arms to defend their country against allied troops. Speaking at a news conference today in Baghdad, Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf said statements like Rumsfeld's were nothing more than a "cheap lie." "There are hundreds of thousands of civilians that are carrying arms in order to fight against the invaders. So what you see is an Iraqi [who] is a civilian, he is a schoolmaster, he is a teacher, he is an engineer, whatever. He is an Iraqi, and he is fighting against the invaders. When Rumsfeld or the others try to allege that [the Iraqi] is a soldier putting on civilian clothes, this is a very cheap lie," al-Sahhaf said.

For U.S. troops in the field, the distinction between Iraqi soldiers and civilians is becoming increasingly blurred. Our correspondent reports that he has personally witnessed numerous incidents in which young Iraqi men in civilian clothes approach the flanks of U.S. columns and suddenly stoop over to pick up an object.

With Iraqis sometimes drawing as close as 15 meters, U.S. troops are left with little time to determine whether a person has bent over to pick up a bundle of clothing, a shepherd's staff, or a gun. U.S. forces may not open fire until they are absolutely certain the suspected Iraqi soldier is really picking up a weapon.

U.S. intelligence agents in the battlefield have told RFE/RL that restraint on the part of U.S. ground troops is an important aspect of the war in Iraq. They say it is an attempt not to alienate the civilian population and to convince communities like the Iraqi Shi'ites that U.S. forces are their liberators rather than invaders.

Our correspondent reports that the rules of engagement are affecting many military decisions as the days go on. He says that during the first week of the war in Iraq, soldiers in the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division on many occasions have not shot at bona fide Iraqi soldiers because they were wearing civilian clothes and concealing their weapons.

Iraqi scouts using cell phones have also been able to call in mortar fire against U.S. positions by sitting in the open -- on river embankments or on top of sand dunes -- and phoning the location of U.S. troops to nearby Iraqi mortar teams.

That practice forced the U.S. Army on 25 March to modify its rules of engagement. Now, any Iraqi in civilian clothes that is seen observing U.S. troop movements while carrying a cell phone is considered a legitimate enemy target -- an observation post.

That order was issued after a mortar attack was launched on a column of U.S. armor just minutes after an Iraqi in the vicinity was witnessed making a call on his cell phone.

Six mortar rounds landed near the column, critically injuring a U.S. sergeant who was directing traffic on the roadside. Another mortar shell penetrated the front right side of an armored ambulance, shaking up the American driver, who later told RFE/RL he is still alive only because of the thickness of the diesel engine block that separated his driver's seat from the point of impact.

Lieutenant Colonel John Charlton, commander of the 1-15 Task Force in the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, said the hesitance of his soldiers to fire against Iraqis in civilian clothes is rapidly eroding as his troops grow accustomed to Iraqi tactics.

Women and children are still being allowed to flee an area where a firefight is breaking out. But young Iraqi men in civilian vehicles are increasingly being viewed with suspicion by U.S. troops. Our correspondent reports that his own talks with U.S. infantrymen have confirmed this.

In an attempt to limit the number of Iraqis approaching U.S. columns, Humvees with loudspeakers mounted on the roofs are now blasting tape recordings in Arabic that warn civilians to stay indoors. The U.S. Air Force is dropping leaflets in Arabic warning that Iraqis who walk toward U.S. ground troops with one or both of their hands hidden are now risking their lives by appearing as a potential hostile Iraqi soldier.

Lieutenant Colonel Charlton said that as the rank-and-file U.S. soldiers become more battle-hardened, they are no longer hesitating to fire at suspicious Iraqis in civilian clothes.

As one American soldier told me recently, "this is a kill or be-killed business. War is hell -- so let me shoot."