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Deaths of Iraqi civilians questioned

A human rights organization says it has confirmed 20 civilian deaths under questionable circumstances in Baghdad since May 1.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A human rights organization says it has confirmed 20 civilian deaths under questionable circumstances in Baghdad since May 1, when President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq, and has received credible reports of dozens more.

In a report released late Monday, Human Rights Watch also accused the U.S. military of failing to conduct proper investigations into excessive or indiscriminate use of force in the Iraqi capital.

“It’s a tragedy that U.S. soldiers have killed so many civilians in Baghdad,” said Joe Stork, acting executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of the New York-based group, which monitors human rights abuses around the world.

“But it’s really incredible that the U.S. military does not even count these deaths,” Stork said. “Any time U.S. forces kill an Iraqi civilian in questionable circumstances, they should investigate the incident.”

Lt. Col. George Krivo, a spokesman for the U.S. command in Baghdad, said Monday that he had not seen the report, but added that “we do take investigations very seriously.”

Human Rights Watch said it was able to confirm 20 civilian deaths caused by U.S. forces in Iraq’s capital between May 1 and Sept. 30, based on interviews with witnesses and victims’ relatives. The organization also said it received “credible reports” that U.S. forces killed another 74 civilians under questionable circumstances during the five-month period.

The organization recommended better language and cultural training, as well as more accountability for soldiers who now operate “with virtual impunity in Iraq.”

In compiling its report, Human Rights Watch said it conducted more than 60 interviews, reviewed police records and media accounts, and collected information from the military and human rights groups.

As of Oct. 1, the organization said, U.S. forces had acknowledged completing five investigations above the division level into alleged unlawful killings of civilians. In four of those incidents, soldiers were found to have operated within rules of engagement. In the fifth case, a helicopter pilot and his commander face disciplinary action for removing a Shi’a banner from a tower, which led to an altercation with demonstrators in which one or more civilians may have been killed.

Krivo said investigations are ongoing into two fatal incidents. One centers on the Sept. 12 killing of eight Iraqi police officers and one Jordanian guard by soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division. The other involves the killing of an Iraqi, he said, but no other details were provided.

The deaths Human Rights Watch documented fall into three categories: those that occurred in raids; those in which the group alleges that soldiers responded disproportionately and indiscriminately to attacks; and those of Iraqis who failed to stop at checkpoints.

“U.S. checkpoints constantly shift throughout Baghdad, and are sometimes not well marked, although sign visibility is improving,” the report said. “A dearth of Arabic interpreters and poor understanding of Iraqi hand gestures cause confusion, with results that are sometimes fatal for civilians.”

The report’s author, Human Rights Watch consultant Fred Abrahams, said the report was limited to deaths in Baghdad because it was “the natural place to begin.”