Prague, 21 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the U.S. military has failed to conduct proper investigations into the killing of civilians by its soldiers in Iraq.
In a 56-page report published today, the New York-based rights group says it has confirmed the death of 20 civilians at the hands of U.S. forces between 1 May, when Washington declared major combat operations over, and the end of September. The study, titled "Hearts and Minds: Post-War Civilian Casualties in Baghdad by U.S. Forces," collects what HRW calls "credible reports" of 94 civilian deaths in the Iraqi capital that warrant investigation.
Jean-Paul Marthoz is the Human Rights Watch representative in Brussels. He told RFE/RL that the U.S., as the occupying power in Iraq, must fulfill its obligations toward civilians.
"We have been consistently investigating civilian deaths in the recent conflicts -- for example, the Balkan wars and Kosovo. The U.S. forces are an occupying power [in Iraq], which means they have particular obligations towards the civilian population. There was some concern that in too many cases there had been examples of behavior [by U.S. soldiers] which might have been considered excessive or indiscriminate. There were people within the U.S. Army itself that expressed frustration at that situation, believing that it might compromise the capacity of the U.S. Army to stabilize the country, put it on the track to democracy and rule of law," Marthoz said.
The exact number of Iraqi civilians killed by coalition soldiers in the invasion and occupation of Iraq is not known. Representatives of the U.S. military say they do not keep official statistics on such deaths because troops do not deliberately target civilians.
The independent Iraq Body Count project (http://www.iraqbodycount.net) puts the number of Iraqi civilians who have been killed since the start of the war on 20 March between 7,400 and 9,200.
The HRW report says the U.S. military has concluded only five high-level investigations into suspected unlawful deaths. In four cases, U.S. soldiers were found to have been acting "within the rules of engagement." In the fifth case, a helicopter pilot and his commander face disciplinary action for trying to tear down a Shi'a banner in Baghdad, an incident that provoked a violent clash with demonstrators on 13 August.
Human Rights Watch says it has investigated two cases itself and found evidence that U.S. soldiers used excessive force, including shooting a person whose hands were raised in the air. The report say the U.S. military often responds with force disproportionate or harmful to civilians, such as at checkpoints.
"We don't accuse the U.S. Army of intentionally targeting civilians. We are also aware of the threats under which the U.S. soldiers are [operating] in Iraq. The U.S. Army should monitor very closely the issue [of civilian casualties] as they do for cases of military deaths. It would show that they are really concerned about the impact of the behavior of soldiers towards the population. What we want also is that the U.S. Army carries out a prompt and transparent investigation into the cases where there are suspicions that the response of U.S. forces was indiscriminate or reckless," HRW's Marthoz said.
Responding to the HRW report, a Pentagon spokesman, Major Joseph Yoswa, is quoted by Reuters as saying, "some unintended consequences are inevitable in any conflict, and even one innocent death is a sad fact, something we sincerely regret." Yoswa said U.S. forces go to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties, "even at the risk of their own lives."
More than 100 U.S. soldiers have been killed by hostile actions in Iraq since 1 May.
Yoswa said the "rare circumstances" where a U.S. soldier is accused in the death of an Iraqi civilian "are always thoroughly investigated and corrective actions are taken."
But the HRW report says a lack of timely and high-level investigations into many questionable incidents has created an atmosphere of impunity among soldiers in Iraq.
The rights group also proposes ways to reduce civilian deaths in Iraq, including appropriate training of combat troops for police functions and investigations into all credible allegations of unlawful killings by coalition soldiers. It says military authorities have to punish soldiers and commanders found to have used or tolerated the use of excessive or indiscriminate force.
Joe Stork, the head of HRW's Middle East and North Africa division, said soldiers must know they will be held accountable for the improper use of force. "Right now," he said, "soldiers feel they can pull the trigger without coming under review."
(The full report can be found at http://www.hrw.org/press/2003/10/iraq102103.html)