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HEIDELBERG, Germany — You’re in the lead of a four-Humvee convoy in Iraq when you see a flash behind you followed by a loud explosion and a cloud of smoke where one of the Humvees used to be.

Just then, two men jump on a motorcycle and speed away; another gets into a car and drives off. Two others run into a house. And then bullets start flying your way from inside another house.

What do you do?

About 100 soldiers heading to Baghdad in the next month with the Special Troops Battalion, which comprises V Corps Headquarters, thought it over Thursday afternoon in the comfort of the Patton Barracks gym. A few gave it a shot.

“Return fire and keep moving,” said one.

“Maneuver to maneuver,” said another.

The correct answer, according to V Corps headquarters’ pre-deployment training on the rules of engagement that U.S. soldiers are legally bound to follow in Iraq was simple: Return fire with proportional force.

“Don’t engage the motorcycle, the car or the people running away,” said Lt. Col. Mark Gorton, Special Troops Battalion commander, who gave the briefing.

The hourlong briefing is required of all soldiers headed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and is the most general — and perhaps the only unclassified one — among several that soldiers are supposed to receive when they get on the ground with their units and before they head out on convoys or other missions.

The rules of engagement, or ROE, vary for places and times depending on threat levels. But they share a broad purpose — to lessen unnecessary suffering during war — and a basis — international law, primarily the Law of Armed Conflict, unwritten state practices and customs and treaties.

The class serves as an introduction to what can be a complicated subject. Maj. Rick Lear, V Corps chief of international and operational law, said the hope is that soldiers will understand the basics of when deadly force can be used.

“So it’s clear every soldier knows and understands when somebody’s shooting at me, I can shoot back,” Lear said.

“However there are situations where I don’t know. I think that person may be doing something bad. And we want to train soldiers to react, and react in a manner that is not only consistent with the Law of Armed Conflict but consistent with what we’re trying to do with our mission in Iraq.”

And practically, the briefing is to help soldiers navigate between two extremes when faced with difficult circumstances.

“If you react too quickly, you could cause an international incident,” Gorton told the soldiers. “If you react too slowly, you could be a casualty.”

How many of the more than 2,100 U.S. military members killed in Iraq as a result of reacting too slowly is unknown. But while the U.S. has been in Iraq, there have been international incidents.

Abu Ghraib, for instance, seems to be an example of violating ROE ordering the protection of detainees, as have some lower-profile courts-martial convictions of military members who killed Iraqis in their custody.

Moreover, Human Rights Watch, citing the killings of Iraqi civilians at checkpoints, has faulted the military for not doing more to educate Iraqis about how to behave when they approach checkpoints. It said U.S. soldiers’ instructions were sometimes confusing to Iraqis.

And in March, relations between the U.S. and Italy were strained after an Italian journalist just rescued from kidnappers was shot and her bodyguard killed at a checkpoint as they drove toward the airport.

In that case, a U.S. investigation found that the soldiers acted within the ROE because the Italians failed to slow for the checkpoint despite warning shots fired. The Italians disputed that.

But if one overarching theme of the ROE is restraint, another is the inherent right of self-defense. Soldiers responding to hostile actions or hostile intent need not seek authorization.

But that force must be “proportional.”

“You wouldn’t destroy an entire city block to take out one person,” Gorton said.

Knowing whether the threat is real is often difficult.

You’re in a convoy, another scenario began, when you see a white Opel approaching the rear of the convoy. You know the intelligence: White Opels are being used in convoy bomb attacks. What do you do?

The correct answer is to persuade the Opel driver to back off, either through hand signals or by training your weapons on him. If he doesn’t respond, you should fire at the engine block to disable the vehicle.

In another scenario in which a man on an overpass appears to be holding a “grenade-sized object” as your convoy approaches at 60 mph, it was determined shooting the man was not the thing to do.

“There are going to be people on overpasses,” Gorton said. And it’s tough to make out what anybody is holding at 60 mph.

But, the briefing material said, if the man appears to be about to throw or drop what you think is a grenade, it’s appropriate to fire.

Maj. Gen. Daniel Hahn, V Corps deputy commander, who attended the briefing, assured soldiers that in cases like these they would be armed with something the briefing didn’t provide: knowledge of insurgent activity in the area. “The key to be able to deal with these issues is intelligence,” he said.

Pfc. Christopher Nicholson, among those at the briefing, said he found the session helpful, even though much of it, he said, was “common sense.”

Nicholson soon will be deploying to Iraq for the first time. “I have to do it,” he said when asked how he felt about his upcoming deployment, “so it really doesn’t matter how I feel about it.”

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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