Report Details Fatal Iraq Checkpoint Shooting

Tue Apr 1, 7:04 AM ET

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Washington Post on Tuesday published an account of Monday's fatal shooting at a checkpoint near Najaf that suggested U.S. troops did not give a speeding vehicle enough warning before opening fire.

U.S. Central Command said U.S. troops fired at a van on Monday which failed to stop at a desert checkpoint, even after warning shots were fired, killing seven of the 13 women and children in the van and injuring two others.

But the Post report, written by journalist William Branigin who is traveling with U.S. troops, said a total of 10 people were killed and quoted the U.S. captain at the intersection as saying his forward platoon had failed to give the van ample notice that it would be shelled.

"You just killed a family because you didn't fire a warning shot soon enough!," the newspaper quoted Capt. Ronny Johnson of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division as saying after the shelling ended.

U.S. defense officials described the incident as tragic and said they are investigating. But they insist their initial account -- which said warning shots were fired -- is correct.

"I'm sure that these soldiers were doing a good job," said one official. "It's very tragic, but they acted in an appropriate way."


They said the deaths of the Iraqi civilians were regrettable and tragic, but said it was understandable that U.S. soldiers at the checkpoint were anxious, given last weekend's suicide bombing that killed four U.S. troops.

The Post said Johnson, positioned at the intersection, described a potential threat and radioed a forward platoon of M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles to order a warning shot.

"Fire a warning shot," Johnson ordered the platoon as the vehicle kept coming. Then with increasing urgency, Johnson told the platoon to shoot a 7.62mm machine-gun round into the vehicle's radiator, the report said.

"Stop around!" he yelled into the radio network when he still saw no action being taken. Finally, he shouted, "Stop him, Red 1, stop him!," according to the report.

The Post report said the order was immediately followed by the loud reports of 25mm cannon fire from one or more of the platoon's Bradleys.

"Cease fire!" Johnson yelled over the radio. Then, as he peered into his binoculars from the intersection, he roared at the platoon leader, "You just killed a family because you didn't fire a warning shot soon enough!," according to the Post's account.


It said Johnson's company reported 10 of the 15 Iraqi civilians in the van, including five children, were killed.

The Post account caused consternation at the Pentagon, where officials scrambled to deal with an incident that was likely to spark more anti-U.S. sentiment in the Arab world.

In Washington, defense officials described last weekend's suicide bombing at a military checkpoint near Najaf on Saturday as the most fatal such incident in recent memory.

"I think everyone understands that these soldiers were operating in a very difficult situation," said one U.S. official, who asked not to be named.

The official also noted that U.S. troops were specifically trained to work at checkpoints.

U.S. defense officials blamed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for the deaths of the women and children at the checkpoint on Monday.

"The terrorist tactics of a dying regime have put civilians in harm's way," said one official, noting Iraq had clearly threatened to use suicide bombings in the war with U.S. and British forces.

He urged Iraqi civilians to obey any instructions given by U.S. troops when approaching a U.S. checkpoint.

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