Human Rights Watch's letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld requesting that the U.S. military follow up on allegations of misconduct by U.S. forces in Iraq

The recent exposure of cases of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees by U.S. soldiers in Iraq has focused attention on the need for thorough and impartial investigations when there are allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law. With that in mind, we would like to draw your attention to two reports Human Rights Watch published last year on possible wrongful or unlawful use of force by U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The first, Violent Response: The U.S. Army in al-Falluja , appeared in June 2003, and the second, Hearts and Minds: Post-war Civilian Deaths in Baghdad Caused by U.S. Forces, in October 2003. Both reports were provided to the U.S. military at the time of their release.

A key recommendation in both reports was that the U.S. military conduct thorough and impartial investigations above the level of Commander’s Inquiry into incidents of civilian deaths caused by the possible wrongful or unlawful use of force. The Army announced last week that it had opened a criminal investigation into an incident on May 21, 2004, in Kufa, in which an Iraqi driver injured in a checkpoint incident was subsequently shot dead at close range. So far as we are aware, however, no such investigations into the incidents we documented in al-Falluja and Baghdad have taken place. We would welcome clarification from your office on this point.

Human Rights Watch’s inquiry into the al-Falluja incidents documents the apparent use of excessive force by U.S. soldiers on April 28 and 30, 2003, resulting in the deaths of twenty Iraqis and the wounding of an estimated 70. After an in-depth investigation, including interviews with Iraqi witnesses and the U.S. soldiers involved, as well as a detailed site evaluation, Human Rights Watch believes that U.S. troops used automatic machine gun fire in an indiscriminate and excessive manner against a crowd. Witness testimony and ballistics evidence suggest that U.S. troops responded with excessive force to a perceived threat. These findings point to the need for an independent and impartial investigation by U.S. authorities of these incidents in al-Falluja. Such an investigation should aim to determine the full circumstances that led to the killings, and to hold accountable anyone found to have violated international humanitarian law. To our knowledge, no such investigation has thus far taken place.

The second report documents civilian deaths in Baghdad caused by U.S. troops from May through September 2003. Human Rights Watch found that while U.S. forces are not targeting civilians, neither are they doing enough to minimize harm to civilians as required by international law. The report includes a number of cases in which U.S. forces appear to have used excessive or indiscriminate force, resulting in civilian deaths at checkpoints, during raids, or after U.S. soldiers have come under attack. Disturbingly, the U.S. military told Human Rights Watch that it does not keep statistics of the number of civilians killed as a result of U.S. fire.

During its research in Baghdad, Human Rights Watch confirmed the deaths of twenty Iraqi civilians in legally questionable circumstances between May 1 and September 30, 2003. Eighteen of these deaths are documented in the 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—and all of these cases are listed with names of victim, place of incident and date of death in an appendix. 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.

A central problem is the lack of accountability. 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 their triggers without coming under review.

As of October 1, 2003, the month the report was issued, the U.S. military had acknowledged completing only five investigations above the division level into alleged unlawful killings of civilians. Human Rights Watch welcomed these investigations, but continues to have reservations about some of the findings. Two of the five cases are documented in the report, and the evidence suggests that U.S. soldiers used excessive lethal force. But for the great majority of questionable civilian deaths no investigation has taken place so far as we are aware.

Given the U.S. military's current interest in investigating and prosecuting U.S. soldiers for torture-related abuses committed in Iraq, Human Rights Watch wanted to bring these reports and the cases they document to your attention, in the continuing hope that proper investigations will be conducted and will lead to the appropriate punishment or disciplinary measures against any soldiers or commanders found to have used or tolerated the use of excessive or indiscriminate force. We urge that you make these investigations transparent by announcing the cases under investigation and publicizing the results. As required by international law, the investigations should be thorough, prompt and impartial, including evidence gathered from sources beyond the soldiers and commanders in question.

Again, we would welcome any information you can provide if investigations have taken place into the incidents recounted in these Human Rights Watch reports. If such investigations have not taken place, we urge you to ensure that they happen as a matter of urgency. We hope the material provided assists you in this process, and we stand ready to provide further assistance if requested.

We would also welcome any information regarding other criminal investigations into possible unlawful use of force by U.S. troops in Iraq since May 1, 2003, and the current status of those investigations.

Thank you in advance for your attention to these requests.

Sincerely,

Tom Malinowski
Washington Director
Human Rights Watch

Joe Stork
Washington Director
Middle East and North Africa Division

cc:
Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense
William Haynes II, General Cousel, Office of the Secretary of Defense
Gen. John Abizaid, Commander, U.S. Central Command
Maj.Gen. Thomas J. Romig, Judge Advocate General, U.S. Army
Brig.Gen. Kevin M. Sandkuhler, Judge Advocate General, U.S. Marine Corps
Lt.Gen. Norton Schwartz, Director of Operations, Joint Chiefs of Staff, J3
Sen. John W. Warner, Chair, Armed Services Committee, U.S. Senate
Sen. Carl Levin, Ranking Member, Armed Services Committee, U.S. Senate
Rep. Duncan Hunter, Chair, Armed Services Committee, U.S. House of Representatives
Rep. Ike Skelton, Ranking Member, Armed Services Committee, U.S. House of Representatives