Fear of suicide bombers means troops have shot drivers and passengers who were simply too scared or confused to stop
Samar Hassan screams after her parents were shot by US troops in Tal Afar in January 2005. Hussein and Camila Hassan died when they failed to stop their car at a checkpoint. Their five children survived.
Patrolling a main road near Musayyib, south of Baghdad, one evening in September 2005, two US soldiers saw a vehicle approaching in the dark. They waved their arms and flashed lights that were meant to indicate it should stop. When the car continued to advance the troops fired warning shots. They then raised their M249 squad automatic weapons, a light machine gun that sprays bullets at colossal speed. Each man fired as many as 100 rounds at the car.
The predictable result was that the people in the front, a man and a woman, were killed. In the back their nine- and six-year-old children were lucky to survive with injuries in the thighs and legs.
This Iraqi family’s fate was by no means unique. The war logs, seen by the Guardian, contain a horrific dossier of cases where US troops killed innocent civilians at checkpoints, on Iraq’s roads and during raids on people’s homes. The victims include dozens of women and children. The US rarely admitted their deaths publicly.
In the secret logs the killings mainly figure as “escalation of force incidents”. Commanders send in reports outlining how soldiers faithfully followed the rules of engagement: first signals, then warning shots, and as a last resort direct fire to disable a vehicle or its driver.
The relentless drumbeat of civilian deaths illustrates the nature of 21st century warfare and key differences from the way the Americans conducted themselves in their eight-year war in Vietnam.
Suicide attacks were unknown in America’s last major foreign conflict before Iraq. There was no expectation that anything on wheels or indeed any pedestrian could be a moving bomb. The second difference is a change in western military doctrine, common to other Nato armies during counter-insurgencies.
Known since 2001 as force protection, it puts a high premium on minimising all conceivable risk by permitting troops to bypass traditional methods of detecting friend from foe in favour of extreme pre-emptive action.
It may be argued that drivers should be more careful to obey troops’ orders, but in the dark civilians can be as jumpy as soldiers. Unlike troops they have no training or prior experience. They may not be sure who the people with flashing lights are on the road ahead. If it is an unofficial roadblock manned by bandits or militias it may be safer to try to race past. They may think they are being ordered to prepare to stop when they reach the checkpoint, not slow down or halt immediately They may fear that if they do a U-turn or retreat this will be considered suspicious.
A month after the Musayyib killing troops from the 1st Battalion 64th Armour were manning a cordon and search checkpoint in Baghdad.
A civilian car approached in the dark and ignored shouts and flashing lights. The troops fired a single warning shot, and when the vehicle failed to stop they fired 13 to 15 rounds from their 7.62mm rifles. The car contained a woman and three children. Two of the children were dead, the other child and the woman driver were injured.
One of the biggest death tolls in this kind of incident occurred on 14 June 2005. Troops from 1st Battalion 5th Marine Regiment were manning a checkpoint near Hurricane Point, a US base near Ramadi.
A maroon four-door Opel disregarded hand signals and warning shots and accelerated, the log says. Humvees were parked in the centre of the road in front of it. Marines were positioned on each side. The car was still 150 yards away when troops fired at the car’s engine block.
When it was 100 yards away troops fired again. The car carried on moving at between 40mph and 45mph. Now the marines fired at the driver. This time the car halted.
In the vehicle the marines found 11 civilians, of whom seven – two children and five adults – were dead. The intelligence report says “the large number of civilian KIA [killed in action] resulted from the family having placed their children on the floorboards of the vehicle. The disabling shots aimed at the grill are believed to have travelled though the vehicle low to the floorboards”.
In another horrendous incident on the evening of 29 September 2004 a US marine convoy was travelling on a road near Saqlawiya, west of Baghdad, when a car came up close behind, in spite of hand and other signals from the soldier in the rear Humvee to stay further back.
He fired at the engine and then into the windscreen. The vehicle swerved and plunged into a canal. A man managed to escape and was pulled from the water by a soldier.
The log does not say whether the marines left at this point but it records that they contacted the Iraqi police to take over the job of checking the car. “Saqlawiyah IPS [Iraqi police service] responded to the scene and recovered (2) adult females, (3) children ages 5 to 8, and (1) infant from the vehicle. All (6) had drowned,” the log concludes.
The victims of these road killings were not always in cars or vans. In Falluja on 26 March 2004 a cyclist approached a US Humvee with military police investigating a booby trap that had just been found.
According to the intelligence report he was riding “very quickly”. “The MPs went through the levels of escalation of force but the man on the bicycle would not slow down. A bag or package was in a basket on the front of the bicycle. Marines engaged [shot at] the male and report (1) IZ [Iraqi] male killed.” The report adds: “No explosives were found in the bag/package that was in the basket of the bike.”
Raids on Iraqi homes also led to the deaths of innocents when intelligence was poor. Sneaking up to what a report describes as a “suspicious” house while conducting a “cordon and search” just after 5am in the western town of Rutba on 11 September 2005, marines discovered there was no one in it above the age of 10. A 10-year-old girl and an infant boy were killed. Three other children suffered blast wounds. The marines took one back to their base for treatment.
“The children’s parents were not at the premises at the time of the incident … No CF [coalition forces] casualties or damages reported,” the logs record.