Iraqis mourn relatives awaiting burial after being killed last month in fighting near the town of Qaim in western Iraq. (For The Washington Post)
Eyewitnesses Cite Scores Killed in Marine Offensive in Western Iraq
U.S. Marine airstrikes targeting insurgents sheltering in Iraqi residential
neighborhoods are killing civilians as well as guerrillas along the Euphrates
River in far western Iraq, according to Iraqi townspeople and officials and
the U.S. military.
Just how many civilians have been killed is strongly disputed by the Marines
and, some critics say, too little investigated. But townspeople, tribal leaders,
medical workers and accounts from witnesses at the sites of clashes, at hospitals
and at graveyards indicated that scores of noncombatants were killed last month
in fighting, including airstrikes, in the opening stages of a 17-day U.S.-Iraqi
offensive in Anbar province.
"These people died silently, complaining to God of a guilt they did not
commit," Zahid Mohammed Rawi, a physician, said in the town of Husaybah.
Rawi said that roughly one week into Operation Steel Curtain, which began on
Nov. 5, medical workers had recorded 97 civilians killed. At least 38 insurgents
were also killed in the offensive's early days, Rawi said.
In a Husaybah school converted to a makeshift hospital, Rawi, four other doctors
and a nurse treated wounded Iraqis in the opening days of the offensive, examining
bloodied children as anxious fathers soothed them and held them down.
"I dare any organization, committee or the American Army to deny these
numbers," Rawi said.
U.S. Marines in Anbar say they take pains to spare innocent lives and almost
invariably question civilian accounts from the battleground communities. They
say that townspeople who either support the insurgents or are intimidated by
them are manipulating the number of noncombatant deaths for propaganda -- a
charge that some Iraqis acknowledge is true of some residents and medical workers
in Anbar province.
"I wholeheartedly believe the vast majority of civilians are killed by
the insurgency," particularly by improvised bombs, said Col. Michael Denning,
the top air officer for the 2nd Marine Division, which is leading the fight
against insurgents in Anbar province.
In an interview at a Marine base at Ramadi, Anbar's provincial capital, Denning
acknowledged that a city was "a very, very difficult place to fight."
He said, however, that "insurgents will kill civilians and try to blame
it on us."
But some military analysts say the U.S. military must do more to track the
civilian toll from its airstrikes. Sarah Sewall, deputy assistant secretary
of defense from 1993 to 1996 and now program director for the Carr Center for
Human Rights Policy at Harvard, said the military's resistance to acknowledging
and analyzing so-called collateral damage remained one of the most serious failures
of the U.S. air and ground war in Iraq.
"It's almost impossible to fight a war in which engagements occur in urban
areas [and] to avoid civilian casualties," Sewall, whose center is a branch
of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government that focuses on issues such as genocide,
failed states and military intervention, said in a telephone interview.
"In a conflict like Iraq, where civilian perceptions are as important
as the number of weapons caches destroyed, assessing the civilian harm must
become a part of the battle damage assessment process if you're going to fight
a smart war," she said.
The number of airstrikes carried out each month by U.S. aircraft rose almost
fivefold this year, from roughly 25 in January to 120 in November, according
to a tally provided by the military. Accounts by residents, officials and witnesses
in Anbar and the Marines themselves make clear that Iraqi civilians are frequently
caught in the attacks.
On Nov. 7, the third day of the offensive, witnesses watched from the roof
of a public building in Husaybah as U.S. warplanes struck homes in the town's
Kamaliyat neighborhood. After fires ignited by the fighting had died down, witnesses
observed residents removing the bodies of what neighbors said was a family --
mother, father, 14-year-old girl, 11-year-old boy and 5-year-old boy -- from
the rubble of one house.
Survivors said insurgents had been firing mortars from yards in the neighborhood
just before the airstrikes. Residents pleaded with the guerrillas to leave for
fear of drawing attacks on the families, they said, but were told by the fighters
that they had no other space from which to attack.
Near the town of Qaim one day last month, a man who identified himself only
as Abdul Aziz said a separate U.S. airstrike killed his grown daughter, Aesha.
Four armed men were also found in the rubble of her house, he said.
"I don't blame the Americans. I blame Zarqawi and his group, who were
using my daughter's house as a shelter," said Abdul Aziz, referring to
Abu Musab Zarqawi, leader of the foreign-dominated group al Qaeda in Iraq.
Abdul Aziz spoke beside his daughter's newly dug grave, in a cemetery established
for the 80 to 90 civilians who Anbar officials said were killed in the first
weeks of the offensive. Several dozen new graves were evident, and residents
said more than 40 victims of the fighting were to be buried that day alone.
Witnesses saw only 11, all wrapped in blankets for burial. Residents said two
of the 11 were women.
Abdul Aziz's grandsons ascribed blame for their mother's death more pointedly.
"She was killed in the bombing by the Americans," said Ali, 9, the
oldest of three brothers.
Operation Steel Curtain is representative of a series of offensives in western
Anbar that began in late April. Brig. Gen. James L. Williams of the 2nd Marine
Division described them as a town-by-town campaign to drive out insurgents and
establish a permanent Iraqi army presence in the heavily Sunni Arab region.
Iraqi and foreign insurgents use the Euphrates River communities for bases and
for logistics support to funnel money, recruits and ordnance from Anbar and
neighboring Syria to fighters planning attacks elsewhere in Iraq.
Steel Curtain involved 2,500 U.S. Marines, soldiers and sailors and about 1,000
soldiers of the U.S.-trained Iraqi army, including newly established units of
locally recruited scouts commissioned mainly for their knowledge of the area,
the Marines said. As the Iraqi and U.S. forces moved through Husaybah, Karabilah
and other towns, Marines said, they encountered scores of mines and insurgent-rigged
bombs made from artillery shells or other ordnance. Ten Marines and 139 insurgents
died in the offensive, the Marines said. They gave no totals for known civilian
Statements issued by the U.S. military during the offensive reported at least
two incidents that were described as airstrikes unwittingly conducted on buildings
where civilians were later found to have been present.
On Nov. 8, a man in Husaybah led U.S. and Iraqi forces to a house destroyed
by U.S. airstrikes the previous day, Marines said. Searching the rubble, Iraqi
troops and U.S. Marines found two wounded civilians -- a young girl and a man
-- and recovered five bodies.
The Marines were told that fighters loyal to Zarqawi had forced their way into
the house, killed two of the people inside and locked the rest of the family
on a lower floor before using the building to attack Iraqi and U.S. forces clearing
"The soldiers and Marines had no knowledge of the civilians being held
hostage in the home at the time of the attack," Marines said in a statement.
It could not be determined if that airstrike was the same as the one described
by witnesses who watched removal of the dead family.
On Nov. 15, U.S.-led forces called in an airstrike after coming under small-arms
fire from a building in the hamlet of New Ubaydi. Two men ran from the building
waving white flags after the airstrike, followed by 15 male and female civilians,
a U.S. Marine statement said.
Marines described other instances of insurgents hiding among civilians in Anbar,
including occasions when they dressed as women and tried to pass unnoticed among
townspeople fleeing the battles. Residents, local officials and emergency workers
said insurgents often sheltered among civilians in urban neighborhoods.
Arkan Isawi, an elder in Husaybah, said he and four other tribal leaders gathered
to assess the damage while the operation was still underway and identified at
least 80 dead, including women and children. "I personally pulled out a
family of three children and parents," he said.
An exact count, however, was impossible, he said. "Anyone who gives you
a number is lying, because the city was a mess, and people buried bodies in
backyards and parking lots," with other bodies still under rubble, Isawi
Townspeople, medical workers and officials often exaggerate death tolls, either
for effect or under orders from insurgents. However, accounts from other officials
and residents are borne out at least partially by direct observation of bodies
and other evidence.
The accounts of U.S. Marines and Iraqi civilians of airstrikes often diverge
On Oct. 16, for instance, a U.S. F-15 pilot caught a group of Ramadi-area insurgents
planting explosives in a blast crater on a road used by U.S. forces, Denning
said. The F-15 dropped a bomb on the group, and analysis of video footage shot
by the plane showed only what appeared to be grown men where the bomb struck,
Denning said. After the airstrike, he said, roadside bombs in the area "shut
down to almost nothing.
"That was a good strike, and we got some people who were killing a lot
of people," Denning said.
Capt. Jeffrey S. Pool, a spokesman for the 2nd Marines, said it was not possible
that children were killed in that strike unless they were outside the range
of the F-15's camera.
Residents, however, said the strike killed civilians as well as insurgents,
including 18 children. Afterward, at a traditional communal funeral, black banners
bore the names of the dead, and grieving parents gave names, ages and detailed
descriptions of the children they said had been killed, witnesses said. The
bodies of three children and a woman lay unclaimed outside a hospital after
the day's fighting.
American commanders insist they do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties,
but overall, Denning said, "I think it would be very difficult to prosecute
this insurgency" without airstrikes.
The precision-guided munitions used in all airstrikes in Anbar "have miss
rates smaller than the size of this table," Denning said in the bare-bones
cafeteria of one of several Marine bases around Ramadi. He said that officers
at Ramadi and at the Marines' "lessons learned" center in Quantico
coordinate each attack using the best intelligence available. "I have to
sell it to about two or three different chains of command: 'What are you doing
to make sure there are no civilian casualties?' " Denning said.
Sewall, the former Pentagon official, also said air power often is the best
means for taking out a target more cleanly than ground forces could. But, she
said, U.S. forces don't do enough after the airstrikes to figure out whether
each one succeeded in hitting the intended targets while sparing civilians.
Marine officers said their lessons-learned center at Quantico did not try to
assess civilian casualties from attacks. At the Pentagon, routine bomb-damage
assessments rely heavily on the examination of aerial photos and satellite images,
which Sewall said were "good for seeing if a building was hit, but not
as good for determining who was inside."
"I have enormous respect for the extent to which U.S. air power has become
discriminate," Sewall said. "But when you're using force in an urban
area or using force in an area with limited intelligence," and facing an
enemy actively "exploiting distinctions between combatants and noncombatants,
air power becomes challenging no matter how discriminate it is.
"When it comes to the extent to which they are minimizing civilian harm,
the question becomes: How do you know?" Sewall said.
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks in Washington contributed
to this report.