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Iraq: Civilians Shot Dead In Checkpoint Incident

Prague, 1 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United States military is investigating an incident in which U.S. soldiers shot dead at least seven women and children in a car at a checkpoint in central Iraq.

News of yesterday's fatal shooting near Najaf came as coalition forces continued their bombardment of Baghdad and pushed further in the ground advance on the capital.

Military officials said the soldiers involved in the Najaf incident had followed the rules of engagement when they fired on the car after it failed to heed warnings to stop.

General Peter Pace, vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they "absolutely did the right thing."

"The vehicle was approaching the checkpoint. It was ordered to stop. It did not stop. The guards fired warning shots toward the vehicle. The vehicle still did not stop. They then fired into the engine of the vehicle trying to make it stop. It still didn't stop, so they ended up firing into the vehicle itself," Pace said.

U.S. troops have been on edge following a suicide car bombing on 29 March, also near Najaf. In that incident, a driver approached a U.S. checkpoint and detonated his vehicle, killing four U.S. soldiers.

Pace said this and other incidents where armed Iraqis have posed as civilians have made U.S. troops more wary. "Because the Iraqi death squads have been pretending to surrender, because they have been dressing in civilian clothes, because they have hidden in hospitals, because they have done many, many things that are, in fact, war crimes, certainly the U.S. soldiers are going to be more aware, more concerned about vehicles that approach them like that. You can't just look at it in isolation. Clearly, the environment does impact your perception of the threat," Pace said.

The Iraqi authorities have blamed the U.S.-led coalition for killing dozens of civilians in air raids on Baghdad, but this is the first major incident where U.S. troops have admitted responsibility for civilian deaths.

This morning, there have been reports of a fresh incident in which U.S. Marines near the southern town of Shatra shot dead an unarmed Iraqi driver at a checkpoint, believing him to be a suicide bomber.

If confirmed, both the Shatra and Najaf checkpoint incidents may harm U.S. and British efforts to portray the war as one of liberation rather than occupation. And it could also fuel an impression that American or British forces are too trigger-happy

This opinion does not appear to be limited to the antiwar camp. Yesterday, in "The Times" of London, a British soldier who survived a fatal friendly-fire incident criticized the U.S. pilot responsible for killing his comrade. The soldier said the pilot had started shooting when civilians were close by. "He had absolutely no regard for human life. I believe he was a cowboy," he said.

Yesterday, British Home Secretary David Blunkett admitted that American and British troops are being seen as "the villains" just now. But he said he is confident coalition forces will win the conflict and free Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein's regime.

In other war-related news today, Baghdad and its outskirts came under further bombardment. Attacks inside the capital focused on the main presidential complex.

Fighting between coalition troops and Iraqi forces continued around Hindiyah, located some 80 kilometers south of Baghdad -- making it the closest engagement yet to the capital.

U.S. officers said Iraqi militia and Republican Guard units suffered heavy losses. At least one U.S. soldier died yesterday in the clashes.

Iraq reported fighting in and around the southern city of Nasiriyah and said the Republican Guard was involved along with regular army troops and Ba'ath Party militia. A military spokesman on Iraqi television said Iraqi forces had inflicted heavy casualties.

And Iraqi television read a statement said to be from Saddam Hussein today. In it, Saddam denied that any of his close family have fled abroad.

This appears to be a response to comments from U.S. Defense Department spokeswoman Victoria Clarke yesterday. She said the U.S. has seen evidence that Hussein's family members are fleeing or are trying to flee the country.