Bush's Free-Fire Zones
Determined to gain the upper hand in Iraq and Afghanistan, George W. Bush has turned large portions of the two countries into near free-fire zones where any resistance, even in populated areas, is met with aggressive tactics that often kill civilians.
Though more attention has been focused on trigger-happy Blackwater “security contractors,” Bush’s military strategy has employed its own indiscriminate firepower – from loose "rules of engagement" for U.S. troops, to helicopter gun ships firing on crowds, to jet air strikes, to missiles launched from Predator drones.
For instance, the U.S. military acknowledged on Oct. 23 that an American helicopter killed 11 people, including women and children, after someone allegedly shot at the helicopter as it flew over the village of Mukaisheefa, north of Baghdad.
Iraqi police and witnesses said 16 people died, apparently as some rushed to help a wounded man, the New York Times reported. The helicopter gunners presumed the wounded man to be an insurgent and thus opened fire on the locals who came to his aid, according to witnesses.
“The locals went to check if he was dead and gathered around him,” said Mohanad Hamid Muhsin, a 14-year-old who was shot in the leg. “But the helicopter opened fire again and killed some of the locals and wounded others.”
When Iraqis carried the wounded into houses to administer first aid, the helicopter fired on the houses, killing and wounding more people, said Muhsin, who added that the dead included two of his brothers and a sister.
A local police official said the 16 dead included six women and three children, while 14 other Iraqis were wounded.
The incident followed on the heels of an Oct. 21 gun battle in which 49 people died when U.S. forces attacked alleged Shiite militiamen in Sadr City, a crowded slum in eastern Baghdad. Local authorities said the dead included innocent bystanders. [NYT, Oct. 24, 2007]
Another account of the Oct. 23 incident in the Los Angeles Times quoted residents saying the men who were killed were farmers irrigating their fields in the pre-daylight hours.
Abdul Wahab Ahmed, a neighbor, said the U.S. attack also involved jets that conducted two bombing runs. The dead included two toddlers and four teenagers, he said. [Los Angeles Times, Oct. 24, 2007]
The U.S. military said one of those killed in the Oct. 23 attack was “a known member of an I.E.D. cell,” referring to improvised explosive devices that Iraqi insurgents have made their weapon of choice in fighting the U.S. occupation.
The American statement added that four other “military-age males” were killed along with five women and one child. U.S. military spokesmen often justify killings in Iraq and Afghanistan by noting that the dead are military-age males (or MAMs), slain in the vicinity of a firefight.
The shoot-to-kill strategy toward MAMs has a resonance back to the Vietnam War when U.S. helicopter-borne troops sometimes would spot a MAM working in a rice paddy, fire a shot near him and then interpret his running as an aggressive act justifying his killing.
This technique was described approvingly by retired Gen. Colin Powell in his widely praised autobiography, My American Journey.
“I recall a phrase we used in the field, MAM, for military-age male,” Powell wrote. “If a helo spotted a peasant in black pajamas who looked remotely suspicious, a possible MAM, the pilot would circle and fire in front of him. If he moved, his movement was judged evidence of hostile intent, and the next burst was not in front, but at him.
“Brutal? Maybe so. But an able battalion commander with whom I had served at Gelnhausen [West Germany], Lt. Col. Walter Pritchard, was killed by enemy sniper fire while observing MAMs from a helicopter. And Pritchard was only one of many. The kill-or-be-killed nature of combat tends to dull fine perceptions of right and wrong.”
While it’s true that combat is brutal and judgments can be clouded by fear, the mowing down of unarmed civilians in cold blood doesn’t constitute combat. Under the laws of war, it is regarded as murder and, indeed, a war crime. Neither can the combat death of a fellow soldier be cited as an excuse to murder civilians.
[For more on Powell’s justification for war crimes, see our new book, Neck Deep.]
Evidence from recent military courts-martial also indicate that Bush has transformed elite units of the U.S. military – including Special Forces and highly trained sniper teams – into little more than “death squads” with a license to kill unarmed targets on suspicion they might be threats to American military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This dark underbelly of the U.S. counterinsurgency effort has been whispered about for several years within the U.S. intelligence community, but hard evidence finally emerged with two attempted prosecutions of American soldiers whose defense attorneys cited “rules of engagement” that permit the killing of suspected insurgents.
One case involved Army sniper Jorge G. Sandoval Jr. who was acquitted by a U.S. military court in Baghdad on Sept. 28 in the murders of two unarmed Iraqi men – one on April 27 and the other on May 11 – because the jury accepted defense arguments that the killings were within the U.S. military rules.
The Sandoval case also revealed a classified program in which the Pentagon’s Asymmetric Warfare Group encouraged U.S. military snipers in Iraq to drop “bait” – such as electrical cords and ammunition – and then shoot Iraqis who pick up the items, according to evidence in the Sandoval case. [Washington Post, Sept. 24, 2007]
Army sniper Sandoval admitted killing an Iraqi man near the town of Iskandariya on April 27 after a skirmish with insurgents. Sandoval testified that his team leader, Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley, ordered him to kill a man cutting grass with a rusty scythe because he was suspected of being an insurgent posing as a farmer.
The second killing occurred on May 11 when a man walked into a concealed location where Sandoval, Hensley and other snipers were hiding. After the Iraqi was detained, another sniper, Sgt. Evan Vela, was ordered to shoot the man in the head by Hensley and did so, according to Vela’s testimony at Sandoval’s court-martial.
Sandoval was acquitted of murder charges because a military jury concluded that his actions were within the rules of engagement. (Sandoval was convicted of a lesser charge of planting a coil of copper wire on one of the slain Iraqis. He was sentenced to five months in prison and a reduction in rank but could rejoin his unit in as few as 44 days.)
The other recent case of authorized murder of an insurgent suspect surfaced at a military court hearing at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in mid-September. Two U.S. Special Forces soldiers took part in the execution of an Afghani who was a suspected leader of an insurgent group.
Special Forces Capt. Dave Staffel and Sgt. Troy Anderson were leading a team of Afghan soldiers when an informant told them where the suspected insurgent leader was hiding. The U.S.-led contingent found a man believed to be Nawab Buntangyar walking outside his compound near the village of Hasan Kheyl.
While the Americans kept their distance out of fear the suspect might be wearing a suicide vest, the man was questioned about his name and the Americans checked his description against a list from the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force Afghanistan, known as “the kill-or-capture list.”
Concluding that the man was Nawab Buntangyar, Staffel gave the order to shoot, and Anderson – from a distance of about 100 yards away – fired a bullet through the man’s head, killing him instantly.
The soldiers viewed the killing as “a textbook example of a classified mission completed in accordance with the American rules of engagement,” the International Herald Tribune reported. “The men said such rules allowed them to kill Buntangyar, whom the American military had designated a terrorist cell leader, once they positively identified him.”
Staffel’s civilian lawyer Mark Waple said the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command concluded in April that the shooting was “justifiable homicide,” but a two-star general in Afghanistan instigated a murder charge against the two men. That case, however, foundered over accusations that the charge was improperly filed. [IHT, Sept. 17, 2007]
According to evidence at the Fort Bragg proceedings, an earlier Army investigation had cleared the two soldiers because they had been operating under “rules of engagement” that empowered them to kill individuals who have been designated “enemy combatants,” even if the targets were unarmed and presented no visible threat.
In late September, a U.S. military judge dismissed all charges against the two soldiers because he ruled it was conceivable that the detained Afghani was wearing a suicide explosive belt, though there was no evidence that he was.
Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly hailed the acquittals of the two soldiers and blasted the New York Times for reporting on the original charges but not the exoneration. “Two separate investigations in the Afghan theatre clearly stated the Green Berets effectively did their duty,” O’Reilly said.
However, the larger point is that the case revealed that the “rules of engagement” approved by U.S. higher-ups countenance the murder of unarmed suspects, behavior that would appear to violate the laws of war.
The troubling picture is that the U.S. chain of command, presumably up to Bush, has authorized loose “rules of engagement” that allow targeted killings – as well as other objectionable tactics including arbitrary arrests, “enhanced interrogations,” kidnappings in third countries with “extraordinary renditions” to countries that torture, secret CIA prisons, detentions without trial, and “reeducation camps” for younger detainees.
The U.S. counterinsurgency and security operations in Iraq and Afghanistan also have been augmented by heavily armed mercenaries, such as the Blackwater “security contractors” who operate outside the law and were accused by Iraqi authorities of killing 17 Iraqi civilians in a shooting incident on Sept. 16.
The use of lethal force against unarmed suspects and civilians has a notorious history in irregular warfare especially when an occupying army finds itself confronting an indigenous resistance in which guerrillas and their political supporters blend in with the local population.
In effect, Bush’s “global war on terror” has reestablished what looks like the Vietnam-era Operation Phoenix, a program that assassinated Vietcong cadre, including suspected communist political allies.
Through a classified Pentagon training program known as “Project X,” the lessons of Operation Phoenix from the 1960s were passed on to Third World armies, especially in Latin America allegedly giving a green light to some of the “dirty wars” that swept the region in the following decades. [For details, see Neck Deep.]
Despite behind-the-scenes support for some Latin American “death squads,” the U.S. government presented itself as the defender of human rights and criticized repressive countries that engaged in extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detentions.
That gap between American rhetoric and reality widened after 9/11 as Bush waged his “war on terror,” while continuing to impress the American news media with pretty words about his commitment to human rights – as occurred in his address to the United Nations on Sept. 25.
Under Bush’s remarkable double standards, he has taken the position that he can override both international law and the U.S. Constitution in deciding who gets basic human rights and who doesn’t. He sees himself as the final judge of whether people he deems “bad guys” should live or die, or face indefinite imprisonment and even torture.
By early 2005, as the Iraqi insurgency grew, the Bush administration reportedly debated a “Salvador option” for Iraq, an apparent reference to the “death squad” operations that decimated the ranks of perceived leftists who were opposed to El Salvador’s right-wing military junta in the early 1980s.
According to Newsweek magazine, President Bush was contemplating the adoption of that brutal “still-secret strategy” of the Reagan administration as a way to get a handle on the spiraling violence in Iraq.
“Many U.S. conservatives consider the policy [in El Salvador] to have been a success – despite the deaths of innocent civilians,” Newsweek wrote.
The magazine also noted that many of Bush’s advisers were leading figures in the Central American operations of the 1980s, including Elliott Abrams, who is now an architect of Middle East policy on the National Security Council.
In Guatemala, about 200,000 people perished, including what a truth commission later termed a genocide against Mayan Indians in the Guatemalan highlands. In El Salvador, about 70,000 died including massacres of whole villages, such as the slaughter committed by a U.S.-trained battalion against hundreds of men, women and children near the town of El Mozote in 1981.
The Reagan administration’s “Salvador option” also had a domestic component, the so-called “perception management” operation that employed sophisticated propaganda to manipulate the fears of the American people while hiding the ugly reality of the wars.
[For details about how these strategies worked and the role of George H.W. Bush, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege. For more on the Salvador option, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s Death Squads,” Jan. 11, 2005.]
Iraqis have objected to other disregard of innocent life by American troops, such as the killing of two dozen Iraqis in Haditha on Nov. 19, 2005, after one Marine died from an improvised explosive device.
According to published accounts of U.S. military investigations, the dead Marine’s comrades retaliated by pulling five men – MAMs – from a cab and shooting them, and entering two homes where civilians, including women and children, were slaughtered.
The Marines then tried to cover up the killings by claiming that the civilian deaths were caused by the original explosion or a subsequent firefight, according to investigations by the U.S. military and human rights groups.
One of the accused Marines, Sgt. Frank Wuterich, gave his account of the Haditha killings in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” including an admission that his squad tossed a grenade into one of the residences without knowing who was inside.
“Frank, help me understand,” asked interviewer Scott Pelley. “You’re in a residence, how do you crack a door open and roll a grenade into a room?”
“At that point, you can’t hesitate to make a decision,” Wuterich answered. “Hesitation equals being killed, either yourself or your men.”
“But when you roll a grenade in a room through the crack in the door, that’s not positive identification, that’s taking a chance on anything that could be behind that door,” Pelley said.
“Well, that’s what we do. That’s how our training goes,” Wuterich said.
Four Marines were singled out for courts-martial over the Haditha killings though some legal analysts believe the case is collapsing because of loose “rules of engagement” that let U.S. troops kill Iraqis when a threat is detected.
In the context of dangerous combat, many Americans sympathize with the individual U.S. soldiers who have to make split-second life-or-death decisions, all the while thinking they are operating under legitimate rules of engagement that allow killing perceived enemies even if they are unarmed and showing no aggressive intent.
But the greater significance of these recent cases is that they confirm the long-whispered allegations that the U.S. chain of command has approved standing orders that give the U.S. military broad discretion to kill suspected militants on sight – and to blast away at civilians who might get in the way.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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