U.S., British Troops Face Risky Checkpoint Dilemma
Tue April 1, 2003 09:04 AM ET

By Kieran Murray

KIFL, Iraq (Reuters) - A single suicide bombing has put nervous U.S. soldiers on edge, helping to trigger two deadly checkpoint shootings that severely undermine efforts to win the trust of the Iraqi people.

U.S. and British forces have been jumpy at checkpoints since a bomber killed four American soldiers on Saturday by blowing himself up in a car at a roadblock near the city of Najaf.

Nervous U.S. Marines shot dead seven women and children in a car that failed to stop at a checkpoint near Najaf on Monday. On Tuesday they killed an unarmed driver who was speeding toward a roadblock near Shatra in southern Iraq.

Asked if the checkpoint killings undermined attempts to win over local people, British army spokesman Colonel Chris Vernon said: "It does indeed."

Procedures have been tightened to protect the troops, but the rules of engagement have not been changed. Troops still face the same dilemma -- how to distinguish between combatants and civilians and how to decide when to shoot in self-defense.

"A civilian is always a threat until proven innocent," Lieutenant Jason Davis said in the town of Kifl, north of Najaf.

"It makes it very difficult," said a U.S. corporal whose father fought in the war in Vietnam. "It's just like my dad said it was in Vietnam -- you don't know who to trust."


Brigadier General Vincent Brooks told a briefing at U.S. war headquarters in Qatar that troops were still following rules.

"We make every effort to warn, to try to cause a halt to the potential danger before it escalates beyond a point to which it can be controlled," Brooks said.

He said soldiers were now more vigilant because Iraqi fighters were sometimes dressing in civilian clothes and hiding among civilians, but the rules of engagement had not changed.

Despite this, the troops are in danger of appearing trigger-happy.

"The Americans have to look again at the rules of engagement and just see what they're doing at these checkpoints...They are shooting first and asking questions later," Paul Beaver, the former publisher of Jane's Defense Weekly, told BBC television.

At checkpoints, troops partly block the road with wire or vehicles, forcing cars to slow down. If they continue at speed, the soldiers are supposed to fire a warning shot and give the driver time to stop before any decision is taken to shoot.

"The challenge is picking out the enemy from someone else who just doesn't want to be there and is trying to get out of the way," said Major Brian Pearl of the 101st Airborne Division.

"Each soldier must do the math to determine whether there is intent to harm him. If there is, he has to engage -- he has to."

Soldiers say they will do their best to avoid civilian casualties but that their first priority is to stay alive.

Some said they would prefer cars to stop further away from checkpoints and occupants to get out and raise their hands for checks. Others wanted loudspeakers so that instructions can be blasted out in Arabic to people approaching roadblocks.


The dilemma in Iraq is similar to that faced by Israel as it tackles a Palestinian uprising for an independent state which is spearheaded by militants whose tactics include suicide bombings.

Shootings and deaths at checkpoints are frequent and almost all Israeli inquiries have exonerated the soldiers involved from blame, prompting criticism by human rights groups. Israel's rules of engagement are similar to those cited by Brooks.

"The Americans are capable of dealing with the situation," said Israeli strategic analyst Ephraim Inbar.

"But what these troops have to do is tread a golden path between being assertive, cautious and humane. Most of the people they will deal with are civilians. They have to do it in such a way as to minimize the hard feelings of the population."

That is a difficult task, as proved in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where checkpoints intended to stop suicide bombers reaching Israel have fed Palestinian anger against occupation.

"Nothing will work better than the threat of suicide bombers to alienate the U.S. and British forces from the local Iraqi population," said Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher.

"They will have no alternative but to view everyone above 14 years old, every vehicle, even every animal, such as donkeys, as a potential suicide bomb.

(Additional reporting by Matthew Green in Iraq and Mark Heinrich in Jerusalem)

Original URL: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml;jsessionid=RFQL1P5KBLH2YCRBAE0CFFA?type=focusIraqNews&storyID=2486392

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