In all its statements, the U.S. military asserts that soldiers came under effective fire, and only returned fire in response. Lt. Col. Nantz stressed this repeatedly in an interview with Human Rights Watch, rejecting any possibility that his soldiers mistook shooting in the air for shooting at them. "There is no doubt in my mind that my soldiers were fired upon," he said. "I know that these soldiers know the difference between fire in the air and being fired upon."36
In the view of the soldiers, they acted appropriately to the threat as perceived at the time. "That night there was an escalation of force," platoon Sgt. Crosson said. "We don't want to wait until one of our guys gets hit. You can only take so much before you respond."37
In addition, they responded in accordance with the rules of engagement, the soldiers said, which were described as the "seven S's": shout, shove, smoke, spray, show, strike and shoot. "We fired precision fire at those who were firing at us from inside a crowd-and they chose that environment," Nantz claimed.38
U.S. soldiers gave a similar account to journalists who visited al-Falluja in the aftermath of the incident. 2LT. Davidson, for example, according to the New York Times, said that twenty to thirty protesters were shooting rifles mostly in the air, and that soldiers had responded with smoke grenades before several more armed people appeared from homes across the street and began shooting directly at the soldiers, forcing the soldiers to return fire.39 U.S. soldiers, according to the Jerusalem Post, said that the school compound was fired upon from three directions and that "armed militants no more than six meters outside the compound blasted away at the school."40 An unnamed soldier gave a similar account of the battle, according to the Guardian:
We've been sitting here taking fire for three days. It was enough to get your nerves wracked. When they [protesters] marched down the road and started shooting at the compound there was nothing for us to do but defend ourselves. They were firing from alleyways and buildings where we couldn't see. Guys were in line with hot chow. When bullets fell into the compound, people in that chow line ran for cover. From that moment it was all business. We started putting on body armor and went up on that roof.41
As detailed as these accounts are, the physical evidence at the school does not support claims of an effective attack on the building as described by U.S. troops.
Human Rights Watch researchers and the organization's senior military analyst spent several hours at the al-Qa'id school, closely inspecting all rooms of the school, the exterior walls and perimeter wall for evidence of bullet damage that would support the soldiers' contention that gunmen had fired at the school. Human Rights Watch found no compelling evidence to support that claim.
The inspection found two spots on the schools façade facing the street that might indicate bullet impact. The southern side of the wall near the second floor had two shallow pockmarks that might have been caused by bullets, but could also have come from thrown rocks. Three pockmarks on the northern corner of the front wall (below where the machine gun had been placed on the roof) might also have been caused by bullets. Given the lack of deep penetration into the wall, the bullets in both places, if that is what caused the marks, must have had a soft lead core. No damage was seen in any of the school's rooms or the perimeter wall.
The bullet holes that some journalists reported seeing on the perimeter wall turned out to be holes left by nails-some of the nails were still in the holes, and the square patterns formed by the different holes showed they had been used to hang posters or signs. Human Rights Watch found no evidence of the "bullet holes in a second-story window" or the school façade "pocked with bullet holes" described by one journalist.42
There was, however, evidence of rock-throwing. Human Rights Watch found numerous broken windows at the school, chipped walls and rocks both inside the classrooms and at the base of the school (possibly thrown from outside). Such evidence was particularly clear on the north side of the building.
One explanation for the lack of bullet marks provided by Lt. Col. Nantz was that, shooting low from the ground to the roof and second floor of the school, the gunmen were more likely to miss and fire in the air. But this does not account for the gunmen U.S. troops say were across the street on the roofs. Col. Bray suggested that if the gunmen had been poorly trained they would likely fire too high at night. Human Rights Watch's senior military analyst confirmed this possibility. The soldiers in the school did report hearing the "snap" of bullets whipping over his head.
The lack of bullet marks on the school and perimeter wall contrasts sharply with the walls across the street, which bear the marks of more than 100 rounds-smaller caliber shots as well as heavy caliber machine gun rounds-shot by U.S. soldiers. The facades and perimeter walls of seven of the nine homes across from the school had significant bullet damage, including six homes that had been hit with more than a dozen rounds each.
In many of the houses, the machine gun rounds were clustered in one spot, suggesting that U.S. soldiers were shooting at a target, rather than firing indiscriminately. The field of fire was wide, but concentrated in areas.
No bullet marks were found on the upper levels of the houses, despite U.S. soldiers' claims that they had targeted gunmen on the roofs across the street. It is possible that U.S. soldiers shot high, thus accounting for the lack of damage.
Human Rights Watch also inspected the taxi behind which U.S. soldiers said people were firing weapons. The car was struck with more than thirty high caliber rounds, consistent with U.S. claims that soldiers had targeted it with an M-60 machine gun-a 7.62 mm weapon. A steel core from a 5.56 mm bullet, the ammunition for both the M-4 carbine and the M-249 machinegun, was also found in the trunk.
All of the bullets that hit the car entered from the back, and many exited through the front window, indicating the car was shot from the rear. This ballistic evidence is more consistent with the testimony of Usama `Abd al-Latif al-`Ani, the wounded driver of the taxi, who claimed he was backing the car out of the driveway to help his wounded brother when he was shot. The ballistic evidence is inconsistent with the version of U.S. soldiers, who claimed the taxi was moving north to south on the street with armed gunmen behind it when they shot, as this would have caused the bullets to strike the side of the taxi rather than the back.
The Nazal mosque on the south side of the school had also been hit with small arms fire. U.S. troops told at least one journalist that they had come under fire from the mosque. The mosque's imam, Muhammad al-Zuba`i, rejected that claim, although he was not present at the time of the demonstration.43 "The mosque was locked and there were guards," he told Human Rights Watch.44 A guard present during the interview with the imam said that no one had entered the mosque that night.
During his interview with Human Rights Watch, Lt. Col. Nantz clarified the claim that gunmen had fired from the mosque during the school incident, explaining that his troops had come under fire from the area of the mosque early that day. He had denied their request to return fire, he said, because his soldiers had not come under "effective fire."45