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XIV. Violations by U.S. Forces

The violations of international humanitarian law documented in this report occurred in the context of an armed conflict in which abuses have been committed by all sides. This in no way lessens the responsibility of those implicated in war crimes and other offenses. It is a fundamental principle of the laws of war that violations by one side never justify violations by the other.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented violations of international humanitarian law by the U.S.-led coalition forces during the invasion of Iraq until President Bush’s declaration of the end of active hostilities on May 1, 2003.367 The organization has also reported on abuses by U.S. forces during the military occupation of Iraq and since that time, including the torture and humiliation of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and other detention centers.368 The following is only a summary of Human Rights Watch’s major concerns.

During the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military took inadequate steps to minimize civilian casualties. The widespread use of cluster munitions in populated areas, especially by U.S. and U.K. ground forces, caused at least hundreds of civilian casualties. In addition, fifty so-called “decapitation strikes” on Iraqi leaders relied on satellite phone call intercepts and corroborating intelligence that proved inadequate, missing all fifty targets but causing dozens of civilian deaths.369 While U.S. and U.K. air forces generally avoided civilian infrastructure, air strikes on civilian power distribution facilities in al-Nasiriyya caused considerable civilian suffering and attacks on Iraqi media installations were of questionable legality. In some instances of direct combat, especially in Baghdad and al-Nasiriyya, problems with training and the rules of engagement for U.S. ground forces may have contributed to loss of civilian life.

After the fall of the Saddam Hussein government and throughout the military occupation of Iraq, the United States had a legal obligation under international humanitarian law to take all measures in its power to restore and ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety—an obligation the United States failed to meet.370 U.S. and coalition forces largely stood by as individual Iraqis and organized groups looted government offices, hospitals, and, most dangerously for the country’s security, abandoned police and army depots filled with arms and ammunition.

In the intervening two years, the U.S. military’s use of force has resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths and injuries that warrant investigation as possible indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks in violation of the laws of war. A September 2003 Human Rights Watch study of civilian deaths in Baghdad revealed a pattern by U.S. forces of over-aggressive tactics, indiscriminate shooting in residential areas and a reliance on lethal force rather than control measures at checkpoints. In some cases, U.S. forces faced a legitimate threat, which gave them the right to respond with force. But that response was often disproportionate to the threat or inadequately targeted, thereby harming civilians or putting them at unnecessary risk.371 Human Rights Watch has also criticized the U.S. military for overaggressive reactions that put journalists in unnecessary danger.372 U.S. forces have failed to conduct investigations into the loss of civilian lives during military operations and thus have made insufficient effort to take steps to reduce civilian casualties.

A boy watches a U.S. military vehicle on the main road in al-Falluja in May 2003.
U.S. soldiers have used excessive and indiscriminate force there and in other towns.
© 2003 Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch

Due to security considerations, Human Rights Watch has not been able to investigate violations of international humanitarian law by both sides during U.S. military assaults and counter-insurgency sweeps, such as in al-Falluja and along the Syrian border. Reported summary executions, torture and other mistreatment by U.S. forces against Iraqi insurgents and civilians captured on the battlefield are a major concern. A September 2005 Human Rights Watch report, Leadership Failure: Firsthand Accounts of Torture of Iraqi Detainees by the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, provides U.S. soldier testimony of the torture and other mistreatment of Iraqis in detention. The failure of the U.S. military to undertake criminal prosecutions where there is strong evidence of war crimes—the videotaped incident of a U.S. Marine shooting to death an incapacitated insurgent in an al-Falluja mosque being among the most highly publicized incidents373—reinforces these concerns.

U.S. forces have also been implicated in acts of torture and other mistreatment of suspected insurgents at Abu Ghraib prison and other detention facilities in Iraq. Methods of interrogation include harsh and coercive techniques such as subjecting detainees to painful stress positions and prolonged sleep deprivation. The Schlesinger panel appointed by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted fifty-five substantiated cases of detainee abuse in Iraq, plus twenty instances of detainee deaths under investigation. An earlier report by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba found “numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” that constituted “systematic and illegal abuse of detainees” at Abu Ghraib. Another U.S. Defense Department report documented forty-four allegations of such war crimes at Abu Ghraib.374

Human Rights Watch reiterates its call that the U.S. government investigate all credible allegations of unlawful killings by U.S. soldiers, and punish soldiers and officers found to have used or tolerated the use of excessive or indiscriminate force. Human Rights Watch has also found that high-ranking U.S. civilian and military leaders—including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former CIA Director George Tenet, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, formerly the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who commanded Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq—made decisions and issued policies concerning detainees that facilitated serious and widespread violations of the law in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay. The circumstances of the abuse strongly suggest that they either knew or should have known that such violations would take place or were taking place as a result of their actions. There is also information indicating that, when presented with evidence that abuse was in fact occurring, they failed to act to stop the abuse.375

[367] See, e.g. Human Rights Watch report, Off Target: The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq, December 2003. Available at

[368] See, e.g. Human Rights Watch reports, Violent Response: the U.S. Army in al-Falluja, June 2003, available at, and Hearts and Minds: Post-War Civilian Deaths in Baghdad Caused by U.S. Forces, October 2003, available at

[369] Human Rights Watch, Off Target: The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq, December 2003.

[370] Under the Hague Regulations, to which the U.S. is a party, an occupying power has a duty to restore and ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety in the territory under its authority. Hague Regulations, article 43. Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the duty to ensure public order and safety attaches as soon as the occupying force is in contact with the civilians of that territory, that is, at the soonest possible moment. See ICRC Commentary to the Fourth Geneva Convention, article 6. This principle is reflected in the U.S. Army Field Manual 27-10, Law of Land Warfare:

Military commanders on the spot must prevent and where necessary suppress serious violations involving the local population under their control or subject to their authority. Ensuring local security includes protecting people from reprisals and revenge attacks, such as against minority groups or local officials. Commanders are responsible for restoring and ensuring public order and safety as far as possible, and shall take all appropriate measures within their power to do this. See ICRC Commentary to Protocol I, article 87.

[371] Human Rights Watch report, Hearts and Minds: Post-War Civilian Deaths in Baghdad Caused by U.S. Forces, October 2003. For documentation of the first major incident in al-Falluja in April 2003, when the U.S. opened fire on a demonstration, killing seventeen and wounding more than seventy, see Human Rights Watch report, Violent Response: the U.S. Army in al-Falluja, June 2003.

[372] Human Rights Watch press release, “Iraq: U.S. Military Responses Imperil Journalists,” September 24, 2003.

[373] See Andrew Marshall, “Reporter Recounts Killing of Wounded Iraqi by Marine,” Reuters, November 22, 2004.

[374] Human Rights Watch press statement, “U.S.: Abu Ghraib Only the ‘Tip of the Iceberg,’” April 27, 2005. Available at

[375] Human Rights Watch report, Getting Away with Torture? Command Responsibility for the U.S. Abuse of Detainees, April 2005.

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