Since the government of Saddam Hussein was overthrown in mid-April, U.S. forces have encountered hostility in some quarters, and increasing armed resistance from individuals or small groups, particularly in central Iraq. One site of continued armed clashes is the mid-sized desert city of al-Falluja, sixty kilometers (thirty-five miles) west of Baghdad.
Al-Falluja had been spared the ground war in March and April 2003, but had come under air bombardment. Local resentment was evident from the day U.S. soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division arrived in al-Falluja, on April 23. The key turning point came five days later, on April 28, when a demonstration calling for the soldiers to leave turned violent. According to protesters, U.S. soldiers fired on them without provocation, killing seventeen people and wounding more than seventy. According to the U.S. military, the soldiers returned precision fire on gunmen in the crowd who were shooting at them.
At a protest in town two days later, a U.S. military convoy opened fire killing three persons and wounding another sixteen. Again the military said it had come under armed attack, which the protesters denied. That same night, grenades were thrown into a U.S. base in al-Falluja, injuring seven U.S. soldiers. An attack a month later, on May 28, killed two U.S. soldiers and wounded nine. This and other attacks in late May and early June killed four U.S. soldiers and wounded twenty-one.
This report documents these first two violent incidents of April 28 and 30, the facts of which continue to be deeply contested by both sides. The conclusions of Human Rights Watch's investigation challenge some of the assertions made by the U.S. military. Significantly, Human Rights Watch did not find conclusive evidence of bullet damage on the school where U.S. soldiers were based during the first incident, placing into serious question the assertion that they had come under fire from individuals in the crowd. In contrast, the buildings across the street facing the school had extensive evidence of multi-caliber bullet impacts that were wider and more sustained than would have been caused by the "precision fire" with which the soldiers maintain they responded, leading to the civilian casualties that day. Witness testimony and ballistics evidence suggest that U.S. troops responded with excessive force to a perceived threat.
In the second incident on April 30, protesters admitted throwing rocks, and one broke the window of a U.S. military vehicle, injuring a soldier. But there was no clear evidence of shooting from the crowd, again suggesting that U.S. forces responded with disproportionate force.
While none of the Iraqi interviewees said there had been shooting at U.S. soldiers in either incident, and despite the lack of conclusive ballistics and other concrete evidence indicating otherwise, it is possible that agents provocateurs in the crowds did fire at U.S. troops. Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division alleged that rounds were whipping over their heads; in military terms, they had come under "effective fire." For reasons described in this report, and as attacks on U.S. soldiers since April 28 show, al-Falluja was a hostile place for U.S. troops.
The report also highlights some of the difficulties of putting a powerful combat force in a law enforcement role. The paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne had come straight from battle, having suffered casualties. Regardless of the possible responsibility of the individuals involved in the shooting that led to the killing of up to twenty and wounding of scores of others, one conclusion is inescapable. U.S. military and political authorities who placed combat-ready soldiers in the highly volatile environment of al-Falluja without adequate law enforcement training, translators, and crowd control devices followed a recipe for disaster. They entered a town that had to some extent been traumatized by the air campaign, and they apparently had not adapted to the post-conflict role of policing, crowd-control and community relations they were required to perform. The soldiers and commanders of the 82nd Airborne in al-Falluja lacked some of the key tools for an effective law enforcement mission. Notably, they had no teargas or other forms of non-lethal crowd control, although riot control gear had reportedly been given to other units heading north. In addition, the commanders told Human Rights Watch that they lacked enough translators, and thus the ability to communicate effectively with the community they were now policing.
Under international humanitarian law, the United States, as the occupying power in Iraq, has the obligation to restore and ensure public order and safety, in conformity with international human rights standards. When engaged in law enforcement functions, such as crowd control, law enforcement standards should govern their response. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, by Law Enforcement Officials applies to all those who exercise police powers, particularly the powers of arrest and detention, including soldiers when they are acting in this capacity. Law enforcement officials may use lethal force only "when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life." When doing so, they must: act with restraint and in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; minimize injury; and respect and preserve human life.
Human Rights Watch's findings of excessive use of force by U.S. troops point to the need for a full, independent and impartial investigation of the al-Falluja incidents by U.S. authorities. Such an investigation should aim to determine the full circumstances that led to the killing of as many as twenty Iraqi civilians in these two incidents, and to hold accountable anyone found to have violated international humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch's own findings are not a substitute for a full independent and impartial investigation, which would have access to classified evidence, such as communications between U.S. commanders, debriefings of the soldiers involved and other intelligence sources. An investigation should also focus on the possible role of provocateurs within the crowd, in order to determine their responsibilities in the incidents.
Interviews were conducted with three of the U.S. soldiers directly involved in the April 28 incident, as well as two commanders. On May 8 and 9, Human Rights Watch interviewed soldiers of the 1st Batallion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, as well as their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Eric Nantz.1 Three soldiers present in the school on April 28 were interviewed in a group with Lt. Col. Nantz present: platoon Sergeant Crosson, platoon leader Second Lieutenant Wesley Davidson and Radio Telephone Operator Specialist Cory Brassien. On May 13, Human Rights Watch interviewed Colonel Arnold Bray, commander of the 82nd Airborne's 2nd Brigade, with responsibility for the al-Ramadi district.
1 A battalion consists of approximately 300 to 1,000 troops; a brigade headquarters commands the tactical operations of between two and five battalions; and a division consists of approximately three brigade-sized units, or 10,000 to 15,000 troops.