U.S. soldiers have killed and injured many hundreds of Iraqi civilians who unwittingly drove too close to convoys or checkpoints and triggered a reaction in gunners who considered them a threat, according to military statistics provided this week.

Commanders want those shootings reduced, saying they create hatred of the U.S., revenge and more insurgents.

“If you believe, like I believe, that the insurgency over time has repopulated itself, you have to ask the question why has that occurred? I think this is one of the reasons,” said Lt. Gen. Pete Chiarelli, the second highest ranking general in Iraq. “What I’m trying to tell you — every time we do this we’re creating more people that shoot at us, make bombs and plant bombs.”

Multi-National Corps — Iraq officials said there was no way to count exactly how many Iraqi civilians have been killed and injured in “escalation of force” (EOF) incidents over the past three years because they were not previously tracked.

But for the past eight weeks, MNCI has compiled the number of incidents throughout Iraq. These include cases in which no shots are fired but Iraqi drivers are perceived as a threat and lower escalation of force measures were taken.

All such incidents averaged about 10 each day. Of those, they said, about 5 percent resulted in an Iraqi civilian’s death. Eleven percent resulted in an Iraqi injury.

That works out to more than 600 incidents in the past eight weeks, with more than 30 deaths and more than 60 injuries. More than 70 percent of the incidents occurred during the daytime.

Lt. Col. Michelle Martin-Hing, spokesman for the MNCI, said officials believed the number of EOF incidents may have been more frequent in previous periods, although the tracking and statistics were not thought to be reliable.

Based on the eight weeks of incidents, Martin-Hing agreed, it could be well over a thousand killed and injured in such incidents since 2003.

“I’m told that 20 Iraqis a month are killed accidentally in EOF incidents,” Col. Brian Jones, commander of the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, wrote in a newsletter last month.

“Let’s really work hard on our EOF procedures,” Jones wrote. “We need kits that block a road well up front of our lead and trail vehicles. Sawhorses, cones, signs, spike mats and similar tools help prevent these unfortunate circumstances from arising.”

Officials are testing gun-mounted lasers to get Iraqi drivers’ attention so they’ll back off or stop. They’re also making videos for U.S. soldiers explaining that what seems like erratic driving indicating a suicide-bomber may in fact be a distracted mother with a car full of children.

They are also working with Iraq’s Interior Ministry on a long-delayed media campaign instructing Iraqis on how to conduct themselves around convoys and at checkpoints, places where decisions by young soldiers have resulted most frequently in what turn out to be needless deaths.

Unwarranted warning shots fired by soldiers at Iraqi cars is one of the worst problems facing the U.S., Capt. Jonathan Shiroma, spokesman for the 49th Military Police Brigade, said in a recent Camp Victory newsletter. Asked what he meant, Shinoma said, “They’re using that way too often.”

He said Iraqi motorists driving on congested streets and roadside-bomb-plagued highways don’t necessarily mean harm. “They’re just not driving the right way. You’d get ticketed if you were in the U.S.”

Warning shots — followed by shots to disable a vehicle or kill a driver thought to pose a lethal threat — are the last steps in EOF procedures. The EOF is supposed to guide soldiers in keeping themselves and others safe while also following rules of engagement(ROE), based on international agreements and treaties.

And because of the well-known dangers to U.S. soldiers in Iraq, it is also a sensitive topic.

“I’ve already received e-mails that say, ‘Why are you trying to change the ROEs?’” Chiarelli said.

“I’m not trying to change the ROEs,” Chiarelli said. “I’m trying to prepare soldiers better. Give them more tools and data. It’s a force-protection issue.”

For the Iraqi families, though, it’s something else – a personal tragedy and often a reason to hate the U.S. and want to do its soldiers harm.

“Of course the shootings will increase support for the opposition,” Iraqi police Brig. Gen Majeed Farraji told the Los Angeles Times in July after he had been shot by a U.S. convoy that continued on its way after firing. “The hatred of the Americans has increased. I myself hate them.”

Under the EOF protocol, commanders said, soldiers riding in convoys or at checkpoints who see a potentially threatening vehicle are supposed to perform maneuvers to get the vehicle to stop. If none work, they resort to the threat of and/or firing of a weapon.

But the methods are far from standardized and have proven problematic. “The shouting always gets me,” Chiarelli said. “Most kids can’t speak Arabic.”

Warning shots can end up wounding or killing someone because they ricochet or are improperly placed, Chiarelli said.

Shots to the engine block, too, can be inaccurate.

Chiarelli said he understands the difficulties young gunners face as they try to determine in extreme circumstances if an approaching vehicle is indeed a threat. He mentioned the distorted vision that accompanies physiological changes during extreme stress, the split-second timing sometimes needed and the fact that suicide bombers have indeed targeted convoys and control points.

Just last week, he said, a gunner correctly opened fire on a vehicle heading for a control point near Fallujah that turned out to be laden with explosives. “That sucker blew sky high,” Chiarelli said. “If they’d not reacted the way they did, we’d have had a whole bunch of people die.”

“So it’s easy for me up in the palace to say, ‘Hey, guys, count heads,” he said.

Counting heads in a vehicle — few, if any suicide car bombers have contained more than one person in the vehicle — is just one of the simple things Chiarelli wants soldiers to do.

Chiarelli hopes that additional technology — in the form of two types of laser guns that just arrived in Iraq — also will be useful.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Bill Hughes, Chiarelli’s security chief, is testing the lasers, which mount on either a rifle or can be handheld, to see if their bright rays of light are more effective in getting Iraqi drivers’ attention than other methods. The larger laser looks like a radar gun.

Chiarelli prefers the smaller version that can be mounted on a rifle. It saves a gunner time — no reaching around for a flare or light — and is less unfriendly. “I like it because you’re not using a .50-caliber,” he said.

If the lasers work, Chiarelli said, “I want every gunner to have one.”

Hughes said the responsibility for these decisions is a weighty one. “The gunner has the ultimate responsibility, and he’s usually an E-4 or below,” Hughes said. “It’s really tough to put them in that position but it’s part of their job. They should really try to make a decision: Is it really a threat or is it a busload of schoolkids?”

author picture
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.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now