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U.S. Airstrikes Take Toll on Civilians

Eyewitnesses Cite Scores Killed in Marine Offensive in Western Iraq

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 24, 2005; Page A01

RAMADI, Iraq -- U.S. Marine airstrikes targeting insurgents sheltering in Iraqi residential neighborhoods are killing civilians as well as guerrillas along the Euphrates River in far western Iraq, according to Iraqi townspeople and officials and the U.S. military.

Just how many civilians have been killed is strongly disputed by the Marines and, some critics say, too little investigated. But townspeople, tribal leaders, medical workers and accounts from witnesses at the sites of clashes, at hospitals and at graveyards indicated that scores of noncombatants were killed last month in fighting, including airstrikes, in the opening stages of a 17-day U.S.-Iraqi offensive in Anbar province.

"These people died silently, complaining to God of a guilt they did not commit," Zahid Mohammed Rawi, a physician, said in the town of Husaybah. Rawi said that roughly one week into Operation Steel Curtain, which began on Nov. 5, medical workers had recorded 97 civilians killed. At least 38 insurgents were also killed in the offensive's early days, Rawi said.

In a Husaybah school converted to a makeshift hospital, Rawi, four other doctors and a nurse treated wounded Iraqis in the opening days of the offensive, examining bloodied children as anxious fathers soothed them and held them down.

"I dare any organization, committee or the American Army to deny these numbers," Rawi said.

U.S. Marines in Anbar say they take pains to spare innocent lives and almost invariably question civilian accounts from the battleground communities. They say that townspeople who either support the insurgents or are intimidated by them are manipulating the number of noncombatant deaths for propaganda -- a charge that some Iraqis acknowledge is true of some residents and medical workers in Anbar province.

"I wholeheartedly believe the vast majority of civilians are killed by the insurgency," particularly by improvised bombs, said Col. Michael Denning, the top air officer for the 2nd Marine Division, which is leading the fight against insurgents in Anbar province.

In an interview at a Marine base at Ramadi, Anbar's provincial capital, Denning acknowledged that a city was "a very, very difficult place to fight." He said, however, that "insurgents will kill civilians and try to blame it on us."

But some military analysts say the U.S. military must do more to track the civilian toll from its airstrikes. Sarah Sewall, deputy assistant secretary of defense from 1993 to 1996 and now program director for the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard, said the military's resistance to acknowledging and analyzing so-called collateral damage remained one of the most serious failures of the U.S. air and ground war in Iraq.

"It's almost impossible to fight a war in which engagements occur in urban areas [and] to avoid civilian casualties," Sewall, whose center is a branch of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government that focuses on issues such as genocide, failed states and military intervention, said in a telephone interview.

"In a conflict like Iraq, where civilian perceptions are as important as the number of weapons caches destroyed, assessing the civilian harm must become a part of the battle damage assessment process if you're going to fight a smart war," she said.

The number of airstrikes carried out each month by U.S. aircraft rose almost fivefold this year, from roughly 25 in January to 120 in November, according to a tally provided by the military. Accounts by residents, officials and witnesses in Anbar and the Marines themselves make clear that Iraqi civilians are frequently caught in the attacks.

On Nov. 7, the third day of the offensive, witnesses watched from the roof of a public building in Husaybah as U.S. warplanes struck homes in the town's Kamaliyat neighborhood. After fires ignited by the fighting had died down, witnesses observed residents removing the bodies of what neighbors said was a family -- mother, father, 14-year-old girl, 11-year-old boy and 5-year-old boy -- from the rubble of one house.

Survivors said insurgents had been firing mortars from yards in the neighborhood just before the airstrikes. Residents pleaded with the guerrillas to leave for fear of drawing attacks on the families, they said, but were told by the fighters that they had no other space from which to attack.

Near the town of Qaim one day last month, a man who identified himself only as Abdul Aziz said a separate U.S. airstrike killed his grown daughter, Aesha. Four armed men were also found in the rubble of her house, he said.

"I don't blame the Americans. I blame Zarqawi and his group, who were using my daughter's house as a shelter," said Abdul Aziz, referring to Abu Musab Zarqawi, leader of the foreign-dominated group al Qaeda in Iraq.

Abdul Aziz spoke beside his daughter's newly dug grave, in a cemetery established for the 80 to 90 civilians who Anbar officials said were killed in the first weeks of the offensive. Several dozen new graves were evident, and residents said more than 40 victims of the fighting were to be buried that day alone. Witnesses saw only 11, all wrapped in blankets for burial. Residents said two of the 11 were women.

Abdul Aziz's grandsons ascribed blame for their mother's death more pointedly. "She was killed in the bombing by the Americans," said Ali, 9, the oldest of three brothers.

On Nov. 15, U.S.-led forces called in an airstrike after coming under small-arms fire from a building in the hamlet of New Ubaydi. Two men ran from the building waving white flags after the airstrike, followed by 15 male and female civilians, a U.S. Marine statement said.

Arkan Isawi, an elder in Husaybah, said he and four other tribal leaders gathered to assess the damage while the operation was still underway and identified at least 80 dead, including women and children. "I personally pulled out a family of three children and parents," he said.

An exact count, however, was impossible, he said. "Anyone who gives you a number is lying, because the city was a mess, and people buried bodies in backyards and parking lots," with other bodies still under rubble, Isawi said.

CHECK THE IRAQI BODY COUNT DATABASE

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