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US procedures at checkpoints in spotlight
By Luke Baker Reuters
BAGHDAD ‹ US forces have set up thousands of checkpoints in Iraq over the past two years in an attempt to stem rampant insecurity and prevent militant attacks. But familiarity has not made it any easier to tell whether approaching vehicles are friend or foe, as the case of the Italian agent shot dead on Baghdad's airport road has shown.
A US inquiry into the March 4 incident, in which the newly-freed hostage Giuliana Sgrena and another Italian secret service agent were wounded, has determined that it was a ³tragic accident² in which US forces followed correct procedures. That is in line with previous US probes into the deaths of innocent motorists ‹ deaths that have contributed to resentment among Iraqis at the heavy US military presence on their roads and common accusations of soldiers being too quick on the draw. Italy strongly disagrees with the report, which also accused the Italians of poor communication and driving without due heed. It was due to issue its own version of events on Monday in a report expected to question the testimony of American troops.
Any fault may lie somewhere in between, and Rome is unlikely to see Washington change its mind. But the fact remains that such shootings are common, and scores of civilians have died.
The US military acknowledged in its report, released late on Saturday, that new safeguard procedures may now be required. The questions have been posed since April 2003, as the war that overthrew Saddam Hussein was ending, when seven women and children were shot dead at a roadblock south of Baghdad. A few days earlier, four US soldiers had been killed by a suicide car bomber at a nearby checkpoint ‹ another incident that set a pattern for the future.
In the two years since, suicide bombers have attacked US checkpoints hundreds of times, and US forces have been on edge at the first sign of any car approaching threateningly. Some would-be bombers have been killed and attacks thwarted. But many mistakes have also been made, though few are registered by Iraq's thinly spread media, and no statistics are available. Some typical instances have been recorded, however.
Two Arab journalists were shot dead approaching a checkpoint after dark in Baghdad a year ago.
Their driver survived to tell the tale to colleagues.
An inquiry cleared the US soldiers but suggested new procedures might be needed to limit such errors. In January, two civilians were shot dead at a checkpoint in Mosul after their car approached in darkness.
Two children in the back seat survived the incident, recorded by an American photojournalist. The US military acknowledged a mistake and expressed condolences for ³this unfortunate accident.²
Then came the most high-profile incident, the Italian case. Again the shooting took place in darkness, on probably Iraq's most dangerous stretch of road, near Baghdad airport. The seven US reservists involved had been warned of suicide bombers in the area and were forced to stay in an exposed temporary roadblock position for much longer than was necessary or normal because of a lapse in communications. When the Italian car approached, the machinegunner first shone a spotlight at it, then had to fire warning shots and finally lethal rounds, all within seconds, the US report said.
The soldiers had set up no signs, wire or temporary barriers in front of the temporary roadblock, it noted; 15 to 30 drivers, travelling slower than the Italians, had been turned back by the Americans in the hour it had been in place, although some of these managed to stop in time only with a screeching of tyres.
If the Italians were driving at 80kph, as the US soldiers said, that would have put them less than six seconds away from the Americans when the warning lights came on. Just 36 metres after the lights, the Italian car passed a notional line where the US machinegunner had orders to fire warning shots before trying to disable the car. A US soldier was quoted as saying the Italian driver told him afterwards that he had "panicked" on coming under fire and had accelerated. The whole incident lasted about seven seconds.
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