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Iraqi Civilians Widely Terrorized In Midnight Searches

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If polls show Iraqis overwhelmingly want the U.S. out, it may be because the civilian population is being terrorized in their homes, subjected to dragnet arrests, wrongfully imprisoned, run down on the highways, gunned down at the checkpoints, and demeaned as hajis.

That’s the distressing picture painted by 50 returned veterans who, speaking on the record to reporters Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian of The Nation magazine(July 30), describe an American army of occupation that is frustrated, fearful, confused, calloused, arrogant, and quick on the trigger.

Sgt. John Bruhns, 29, of Philadelphia, who served with the First Armored Division, and took part in raids of nearly 1,000 Iraqi homes in Baghdad, said his group of 10 would strike when the family was asleep, kick the door in, rush up the stairs, pull the man of the house out of bed in front of his wife, put him up against the wall, and then group the terrified family together. “Then you go into a room and you tear the room to shreds and you make sure there’s no weapons or anything that they can use to attack us,” Bruhns said. Asked at gunpoint through an interpreter, “’Do you have any weapons or anti-American propaganda?’” the man “will normally say no, because that’s normally the truth. So what you’ll do is…if he has a couch, you’ll turn the couch upside down. You’ll go into the fridge, if he has a fridge, and you’ll throw everything on the floor, and you’ll take his drawers and you’ll dump them… You’ll open up his closet and you’ll throw all the clothes on the floor and basically leave the house looking like a hurricane just hit it…. And then you go right next door and you do the same thing in a hundred houses.”

 Sgt. Justin  Flatt, 33, of Denver, Colo., who served with the First Infantry Division, and  raided “thousands” of homes in Tikrit, Samarra and Mosul, added, “We scared the living Jesus out of them every time we went through every house.” Since Iraqis were paid for “tips” about insurgents, they frequently gave false leads. Sgt. Larry Cannon, 27, of Salt Lake City, a Bradley gunner with the First Infantry Division, said he searched more than 100 homes and “found the raids fruitless and maddening,” according to the magazine.  And Sgt. Timothy John Westphal, 31, of Denver, of the First Infantry Division, said of the thousand or so raids he conducted in Iraq he came into contact with only four “hard-core insurgents.”

 Sgt. Jesus Bocanegra, 25, of Weslaco, Tex., who served with the Fourth Infantry Division, was among the GI’s who said physical abuse of Iraqis during the raids was common, and that soldiers kicked suspects in handcuffs. When they didn’t catch any insurgents, a soldier might say “’Oh, this is a guy planting a roadside bomb’---and you don’t even know if it’s him or not ---you just go in there and kick the sh*t out of him and take him…to jail,” Bocanegra said.

Military officials estimate more than 60,000 Iraqis have been arrested and detained since the U.S. invasion and veterans interviewed by The Nation said “the majority of detainees they encountered were either innocent or guilty of only minor infractions.” Bocanegra said at one point, if “they were wearing Arab clothing and military-style boots, they were considered enemy combatants and you would cuff ‘em and take ‘em in.”Army Reserve Spc. Aidan Delgado, 25, of Sarasota, Fla., of the 320th Military Police Company, said, “I read these rap sheets on all the prisoners at Abu Ghraib and what they were there for. I look down this roster and see petty theft, public drunkenness, forged coalition documents.” Delgado, who later applied for, and got, conscientious objector status, added, “These aren’t terrorists. These aren’t our enemies. They’re just ordinary people, and we’re treating them harshly.”

Spc. Richard Murphy, 28, an Army Reservist from Pocono, Pa., who served with the 800th Military Police Brigade, was in charge of 310 prisoners at Abu Ghraib, concluded, “I knew that a large percentage of these prisoners were innocent…I get the sense that a lot of them were just getting rounded up in big groups.” As for due process for the inmates, Murphy said, “It was just a snail’s crawling process… The system wasn’t working.”

Among the most dangerous places for Iraqi civilians, are checkpoints set up by coalition forces. Sgt. Geoffrey Millard, 26, of Buffalo, N.Y., with the 42nd Infantry Division, said on one occasion  an 18-year-old soldier atop an armored Humvee made a split-second decision that a speeding vehicle was driven by a suicide bomber. The soldier “presses the butterfly trigger and puts 200 rounds in less than a minute into this vehicle. It killed a mother, a father, and two kids,” a boy, aged four, and a girl of three. When briefed afterwards, Millard recalled, “this colonel turns around to this full division staff and says, ‘If these f*cking hajis learned to drive, this sh*t wouldn’t happen.’”

 Tragedies of this sort multiply as many checkpoints are temporary or poorly marked. At one checkpoint in Ramadi, an unarmed man who drove too close to a checkpoint was decapitated by .30-caliber machine gun fire in front of his small, terrified son. On another occasion, an elderly couple were killed at a checkpoint and left in their car for days. “Troops, fearing suicide bombs and rocket-propelled grenades, often fired on civilian cars” as unarmed Iraqis were mistaken for insurgents, The Nation article said.

“These incidents were so common that the military could not investigate each one,” and many commanders “just stopped reporting shootings.”Callousness toward civilians is particularly evident on the part of 20- and 30-truck-long supply convoys barreling down the highways and through densely populated areas at speeds reaching over 60 miles per hour, veterans told the magazine.

 “Governed by the rule that stagnation increases the likelihood of attack, convoys leapt meridians in traffic jams, ignored traffic signals, swerved without warning onto sidewalks, scattering pedestrians, and slammed into civilian vehicles, shoving them off the road. Iraqi civilians, including children, were frequently run over and killed. Veterans said they sometimes shot drivers of civilian cars that moved into convoy formations or attempted to pass convoys as a warning to other drivers to get out of the way,” reporters Hedges and Al-Arian wrote. Twenty-four of the 50 veterans interviewed said they had witnessed or heard stories from others in their units of unarmed civilians being shot or run over by the convoys.

Soldiers and marines on neighborhood patrols also used speed and aggressive firing to reduce the risk of being ambushed. Sgt. Patrick Campbell, 29, of Camarillo, Calif., who frequently took part in such patrols, said his unit fired often and without much warning on Iraqi civilians to ward off attacks. “Every time we got on the highway,” he said, “we were firing warning shots, causing accidents all the time.”The magazine reported “The killing of unarmed Iraqis was so common many troops said it became an accepted part of the daily landscape.”

Interviewees said the killings were justified by framing innocents as terrorists, “typically following incidents when American troops fired on crowds of unarmed Iraqis.”“The troops would detain those who survived, accusing them of being insurgents, and plant AK-47s next to the bodies of those they had killed to make it seem as if the civilian dead were combatants,” the magazine reported. Specialist Joe Hatcher, 26, of San Diego, said handguns and shovels were placed next to the bodies to make it appear the noncombatant was digging a hole to plant an IED.

Iraqi physicians, working with epidemiologists at The Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, published a study last year in the British medical journal “The Lancet” estimating 601,000 Iraqi civilians have died since the March, 2003, invasion as a result of violence. The researchers found coalition forces were responsible, by a conservative estimate, of 31 percent of the deaths. An article published previously in The Nation reported 78,000 Iraqis were killed through June of last year by coalition air strikes.

The magazine reported U.S. troops lacked the training to communicate with or even understand Iraqi civilians and few soldiers spoke or read Arabic.  Specialist Josh Middleton, 23, of New York City, said, “a lot of guys really supported that whole concept that, you know, if they don’t speak English and they have darker skin, they’re not as human as us, so we can do what we want.” Iraqi culture, identity and customs, according to the veterans who served in Iraq, were ridiculed in racist terms, with troops deriding “haji food,” “haji music” and “haji homes.” Haji denotes someone who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca but is “now used by American troops in the same way ‘gook’ was used in Vietnam or ‘raghead’ in Afghanistan,” the magazine said.


(Sherwood Ross is a Miami, Fla.-based writer who covers political and military topics. Reach him at sherwoodr1@yahoo.com)      

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Sherwood Ross worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and contributed a regular "Workplace" column for Reuters. He has contributed to national magazines and hosted a talk show on WOL, Washington, D.C. In the Sixties he was active as public (more...)
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