This report documents and analyzes civilian deaths caused by U.S. military forces in Baghdad since U.S. President George W. Bush declared an end to hostilities in Iraq on May 1, 2003. It is based on research in Baghdad from September 18-30, and follow-up research on October 5 and 9. During that time, Human Rights Watch interviewed the witnesses to civilian deaths, family members of the deceased, victims who were non-lethal casualties, Iraqi police, lawyers and human rights activists, U.S. soldiers, officers from the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s office (JAG) and members of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), responsible for governing Iraq.
The U.S. military with responsibility for security in Baghdad is not deliberately targeting civilians. Neither is it doing enough to minimize harm to civilians as required by international law. Iraq is clearly a hostile environment for U.S. troops, with daily attacks by Iraqis or others opposed to the U.S. and coalition occupation. But such an environment does not absolve the military from its obligations to use force in a restrained, proportionate and discriminate manner, and only when strictly necessary.
The U.S. military keeps no statistics on civilian casualties, telling Human Rights Watch that it was “impossible for us to maintain an accurate account.” Such an attitude suggests that civilian casualties are not a paramount concern.
Based on interviews with witnesses and family members, Human Rights Watch confirmed the deaths of twenty Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in legally questionable circumstances between May 1 and September 30. Eighteen of these deaths are documented in this report. In addition, Human Rights Watch collected data on civilian deaths by U.S. forces from the Iraqi police, human rights organizations, Western media and U.S military statements on the topic. In total, Human Rights Watch estimates the U.S. military killed ninety-four civilians in questionable circumstances. Human Rights Watch did not verify each of these individual cases but, taken as a whole, they reveal a pattern of alleged illegal deaths that merit investigation.
As of October 1, 2003, the U.S. military had acknowledged completing only five investigations above the division level into alleged unlawful killings of civilians. In four of those incidents, the soldiers were found to have operated within the U.S. military’s rules of engagement. In the fifth case, a helicopter pilot and his commander face disciplinary action for removing a Shi`a banner from a tower in al-Sadr City, which led to an armed altercation with demonstrators. A sixth investigation is ongoing: the killing of eight Iraqi policemen and one Jordanian guard by soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division in al-Falluja on September 12.
The individual cases of civilian deaths documented in this report reveal a pattern by U.S. forces of over-aggressive tactics, indiscriminate shooting in residential areas and a quick reliance on lethal force. In some cases, U.S. forces faced a real threat, which gave them the right to respond with force. But that response was sometimes disproportionate to the threat or inadequately targeted, thereby harming civilians or putting them at risk.
In Baghdad, civilian deaths can be categorized in three basic incident groups. First are deaths that occur during U.S. military raids on homes in search of arms or resistance fighters. The U.S. military says it has begun using less aggressive tactics, and is increasingly taking Iraqi police with them on raids. But Baghdad residents still complained of aggressive and reckless behavior, physical abuse, and theft by U.S. troops. When U.S. soldiers encountered armed resistance from families who thought they were acting in self-defense against thieves, they sometimes resorted to overwhelming force, killing family members, neighbors or passers-by.
Second are civilian deaths caused by U.S. soldiers who responded disproportionately and indiscriminately after they have come under attack at checkpoints or on the road. Human Rights Watch documented cases where, after an improvised explosive device detonated near a U.S. convoy, soldiers fired high caliber weapons in multiple directions, injuring and killing civilians who were nearby.
Third are killings at checkpoints when Iraqi civilians failed to stop. U.S. checkpoints constantly shift throughout Baghdad, and are sometimes not well marked, although sign visibility is improving. A dearth of Arabic interpreters and poor understanding of Iraqi hand gestures cause confusion, with results that are sometimes fatal for civilians. Soldiers sometimes shout conflicting instructions in English with their guns raised: “Stay in the car!” or “Get out of the car!”
In all of these scenarios, U.S. soldiers can be arrogant and abusive. They have been seen putting their feet on detained Iraqis’ heads—a highly insulting offense. Male soldiers sometimes touch or even search female Iraqis, also a culturally unacceptable act.
Of course, not all soldiers behave in this way. Human Rights Watch met many U.S. military personnel who dealt respectfully with Iraqis and were working hard to train police, guard facilities and pursue criminals. Some of these soldiers expressed frustration at the lack of sensitivity shown by their colleagues. “It takes a while to get the Rambo stuff out,” one officer told Human Rights Watch.
In general, U.S. military police in Baghdad seem better suited for the post-conflict law enforcement tasks required by military occupation. More problematic were combat units like the 82nd Airborne Division and the 1st Armored Division, who have been called upon to provide services for which they are not adequately trained or attitudinally prepared. Human Rights Watch documented eight Baghdad incidents involving these two divisions in which sixteen civilians died. Many of these soldiers fought their way into Iraq, and are now being asked to switch without proper preparation from warriors to police who control crowds, pursue thieves and root out insurgents. Military officials told Human Rights Watch they recognized the problem and were providing extra training. Their declared aim is to hand over policing functions to Iraqi security forces, but these institutions are still being built.
A central problem is the lack of accountability for U.S. soldiers and commanders in Iraq. According to CPA Regulation Number 17, Iraqi courts cannot prosecute coalition soldiers, so it is the responsibility of the participating coalition countries to investigate allegations of excessive force and unlawful killings, and to hold accountable soldiers and commanders found to have violated domestic military codes or international humanitarian law. The lack of timely and thorough investigations into many questionable incidents has created an atmosphere of impunity, in which many soldiers feel they can pull the trigger without coming under review.
Human Rights Watch welcomes the five investigations conducted thus far, but has reservations about some of the findings. Two of the five cases are documented in this report, and the evidence suggests that U.S. soldiers used excessive lethal force. There are also many questionable civilian deaths for which no investigation has taken place. The most notable example is the killing of up to twenty people by the 82nd Airborne in al-Falluja on April 28 and 30, documented in a May Human Rights Watch report, Violent Response: the U.S. Army in al-Falluja.
At the same time, some steps have been taken to reduce civilian deaths. Checkpoints are more clearly marked and some combat troops have received additional training for police tasks. Iraqi police are more frequently escorting U.S. soldiers on raids.
But more initiatives are required. Basic language and cultural training to teach soldiers hand gestures used and understood by Iraqis and essential Arabic words and phrases would minimize confusion at checkpoints or during raids. Soldiers should know that placing a foot on the head of a person forced to lie on the ground is a grave insult. Combat troops should receive additional training in post-conflict policing, as was provided to the 1st Armored Division.
The rules of engagement are not made public due to security concerns. But Iraqi civilians have a right to know the guidelines for safe behavior. The coalition should mark all checkpoints clearly, for instance, and inform Iraqis through a public service campaign of how to approach checkpoints and how to behave during raids.
Of central importance are prompt investigations of and punishment for all inappropriate or illegal use of force, as required under international law. U.S. soldiers at present operate with virtual impunity in Iraq. Knowledge that they will be held accountable will be an effective restraint on the excessive, indiscriminate, or reckless use of lethal force.