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Overaggressive reactions by U.S. military forces in Iraq are putting journalists and other civilians in unnecessary danger, Human Rights Watch said today.

On September 18, U.S. army troops opened fire on an Associated Press (AP) reporter and photographer in the town of Khaldiya, 50 miles west of Baghdad. No one was injured, but the photographer's car was badly damaged.

On August 17, U.S. forces shot and killed a Reuters television cameraman, Mazen Dana, outside the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. According to the military, they mistook his camera for a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). U.S. military authorities told Human Rights Watch on September 23 that they investigated that incident and concluded that the soldiers had acted within the rules of engagement.

Dana was the 12th journalist killed in action in Iraq since the beginning of the war in March, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Five of these deaths were from U.S. fire.

"As attacks against them continue, U.S. soldiers are sometimes resorting to deadly force in a reckless and indiscriminate way," said Joe Stork, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division. "This puts all civilians, not just journalists, at grave risk."

Stork pointed out that, as the occupying power in Iraq, the United States is obligated to ensure public safety in a manner that conforms to international humanitarian law and human rights standards. This obligation includes a requirement to avoid disproportionate harm to civilians.

In the most recent incident, AP photographer Karim Kadhim and his driver Qassim al-Saidi were traveling to Baghdad when they heard about an attack on U.S. forces at Khaldiya, where the Iraqi police chief had been assassinated a few days earlier. When they arrived, they saw a U.S. tank blocking the road. In the front window of their car was a white laminated sign with black letters, three feet long, that read: "PRESS." At that moment, they heard an explosion, which they believed to be an RPG attack on the U.S. troops. According to the driver, Qassim al-Saidi, a U.S. tank then trained its machine gun on his car. He told Human Rights Watch:

"When we arrived, we saw the tank and stopped. We heard another RPG at that moment, and that is when they shot with a machine gun from the tank. … We turned around quickly, opened the doors, and jumped out. All the bullets hit the car and some went through the seats. … The Americans were very nervous and frightened. They are very confused and suspicious of everything."

The two men hid by the side of the road and eventually found refuge in nearby houses. According to an AP report on the incident, a 20-year-old man was shot in the chest and taken away in a taxi.

In the same incident, AP correspondent Tarek al-Issawi, who had arrived in another car, was fired upon by a .50-caliber machine gun on a U.S. tank, the AP reported. Mr. al-Issawi was also unharmed.

Human Rights Watch inspected Mr. al-Saidi's car, a dark blue Chevrolet Caprice Classic with Baghdad plates 322616. There were seven bullet marks on the car, some of which had penetrated inside the vehicle. The tires were flat, and the windshield was blown out. According to the AP, the car was hit "about 20 times."

U.S. military said soldiers had come under attack that day in Khaldiya. A roadside bomb reportedly exploded near a convoy, and gunmen then opened fire on U.S. troops. A second attack took place nine miles to the west. Two soldiers were wounded but it is not clear in which attack.

The AP sent a letter of protest to U.S. military authorities in Baghdad, asking for an investigation. The shootings were unwarranted and put journalists in grave danger, the AP said.

Human Rights Watch also spoke with Ghaith `Abd al-Ahad, an Iraqi national who works as a news assistant for the New York Times. He told Human Rights Watch that U.S. soldiers threw him to the ground, and handcuffed and verbally abused him. According to `Abd al-Ahad, around September 1 he was driving on Highway 1, 20 miles north of Baghdad, when he came upon a U.S. military checkpoint. An explosion had just killed one U.S. soldier and injured another, and `Abd al-Ahad saw a helicopter evacuating the wounded.

Two U.S. soldiers, whom `Abd al-Ahad believes were from the 4th Infantry Division, pushed him roughly to the ground, even though he showed his press card and said he worked for the New York Times. He was soon let go. As he stood 50 meters away watching the scene, the same two soldiers approached him, threw him to the ground again, cuffed his hands, and put a bag over his head. "One of the soldiers had his knee on my neck," `Abd al-Ahad said. "When I said I work for the New York Times he said, 'Oh, so you speak English,' and he pushed his knee down harder."

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned that reckless reactions by U.S. troops to hostile fire are putting civilians at risk, in this case journalists. It called for an investigation into the September 18 attack on the AP journalists.

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