March 17, 2006

U.S. military forces in Iraq need to take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian casualties in the current air and ground offensive in Samara, north of Baghdad, Human Rights Watch said today. The dangers to civilians from air strikes were again demonstrated on Wednesday, when U.S. bombs killed as many as 11 civilians in the town of Balad during an anti-insurgency operation.

Today the U.S.-led Multi-National Force announced that it would be carrying out the largest air attacks in Iraq since 2003.

“All too often civilians pay with their lives when American bombs fall in Iraq,” said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch. “The U.S. military has in the past launched ‘decapitation’ strikes aimed at top leaders but based on bad intelligence, and also used cluster munitions in populated areas of Iraq.”

Heavy reliance on ground-launched cluster munitions and on questionable intelligence to guide air strikes caused hundreds of unnecessary civilian casualties during the 2003 assault on Iraq, Human Rights Watch said. In a comprehensive 147-page report analyzing the 2003 U.S.-led bombing campaign in Iraq, “Off Target: The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq,” Human Rights Watch found that U.S. forces could have prevented hundreds of civilian casualties by abandoning two faulty military tactics – the use of cluster munitions and heavy reliance on “decapitation” strikes designed to kill Iraqi military and political leaders.

During the 2003 air war in Iraq, U.S. and British forces used as many as 13,000 cluster bombs, containing nearly 2 million sub-munitions, which killed or wounded more than 1,000 civilians. The Human Rights Watch study, published in December 2003, found that the use of cluster munitions in populated areas caused more civilian casualties than any other factor in the coalition’s conduct of major military operations at that stage of the conflict.

The U.S. military also carried out more than 50 “decapitation” strikes on suspected hideouts of top Iraqi leaders during the 2003 air war, but failed to kill a single one of its intended targets, the study concluded. The U.S. “decapitation” strategy relied on intercepts of senior Iraqi leaders’ satellite phone calls along with corroborating intelligence that proved inadequate.

“As the U.S. launches another intensive air-ground military operation in Iraq, we are extremely concerned that the military will again rely on questionable intelligence and methods,” Garlasco said.

To read the Human Rights Watch report “Off Target: The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq,” please visit:
http://www.hrw.org/reports/2003/usa1203/