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Issue No: 43
November 10 , 2007

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Human Rights monitor

UN Challenges US on Illegal Air Strikes in Iraq

Nicolas J. S. Davies

Just as U.S. air operations over Iraq have reached their highest level since the destruction of Fallujah in November 2004, with as many as 70 close air support missions flown on many days since October 1, a new Human Rights Report published by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq has challenged the United States to stop killing civilians in illegal air strikes.

The Human Rights Report for the second quarter of 2007 was long overdue, and was finally published on October 11. The report explains that it was modified following discussions with U.S. and Iraqi occupation authorities, and this appears to account for the long delay in its publication. The report makes it clear that U.S. air strikes in densely populated civilian areas are violations of international human rights law. A footnote to the section on "MNF military operations and the killing of civilians" explains, "Customary international humanitarian law demands that, as much as possible, military objectives must not be located within areas densely populated by civilians. The presence of individual combatants among a great number of civilians does not alter the civilian character of an area." UNAMI demands "that all credible allegations of unlawful killings by MNF (Multi National Force) forces be thoroughly, promptly and impartially investigated, and appropriate action taken against military personnel found to have used excessive or indiscriminate force" and adds that, "The initiation of investigation into such incidents, as well as their findings, should be made public."

The UNAMI report provides the following details of 88 Iraqi civilians killed by air strikes, 15 civilians killed "in the context of raid and search operations" by U.S. ground forces and several incidents of torture and extra-judicial execution by members of Iraqi auxiliary forces under overall U.S. command. UNAMI investigated these incidents because a relative, a journalist or a local official brought each one to its attention. Without doubt, the U.S. Department of Defense is aware of many more killings of civilians by air strikes and ground operations, hence UNAMI's urgent demand for full public disclosure and investigation of all such killings.

The recent increase in U.S. air operations in Iraq has brought a spate of reports of more such incidents. On the day the UNAMI report was released, six women, nine children and 19 men were killed in air strikes near Lake Tharthar, north of Baghdad. The Centcom press office immediately declared that the 19 men were "terrorists" but similar claims regarding previous air strikes have been contradicted by local residents and officials, and they beg the question as to how you know that 19 men were "terrorists" after you've blown them off the face of the earth. An air strike on September 25 in Mussayyib, 30 miles south of Baghdad, killed five women and four children; and one on September 28 on the al-Saha district of Baghdad killed seven men, two women and four children. Once again, I must stress that these incidents just happen to have been reported and that they are probably only the tip of the iceberg of civilians being killed by U.S. air strikes.

Iraqi Health Ministry reports in September 2004 and January 2005 attributed 72 percent and 62 percent respectively of civilian deaths in Iraq to "coalition" forces, not "insurgents", and attributed the high numbers killed by U.S. forces specifically to air strikes. The first of two epidemiological studies on mortality in Iraq published in the Lancet medical journal supported these findings, while the second did not attempt to break down deaths by who was responsible. The Health Ministry retracted its January 2005 figures after the BBC reported them, and has stopped attributing any proportion of Iraqi deaths to occupation forces. It is important to understand that, while "precision" weapons are more accurate today than in the past, about 15-25 percent still miss their targets by at least 40 feet, so the impression conveyed by the Centcom press office and CNN that they can be used to safely and surgically "zap" one house in an urban area is an artful blend of propaganda and science fiction.

Previous reports by Iraqi and international human rights monitors have also found that 60-80 percent of prisoners held by Iraqi forces recruited, trained and directed by the U.S. command in Iraq have been tortured, and UNAMI has documented cases in which people have been sentenced to death and executed based on confessions apparently obtained by torture. The current report also protests the indefinite detention of Iraqis without charge by U.S. forces, and states "persons who are deprived of their liberty are entitled to be informed of the reasons for their arrest; to be brought promptly before a judge if held on a criminal charge, and to challenge the lawfulness of their detention."

The UNAMI report does not directly address torture by U.S. forces, but the International Committee of the Red Cross and other human rights groups have documented extensive and systematic violations of international humanitarian law in the treatment of prisoners by U.S. forces in Iraq. The U.S. government has tortured and abused prisoners throughout its network of prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba, as well as in CIA-run prisons in Romania, Mauretania, Diego Garcia, and elsewhere. Human rights groups have amassed incontrovertible evidence of systematic torture, authorized at the highest levels, throughout this gulag, including death threats, mock executions, near-drowning, excruciating stress positions, hypothermia, sleep deprivation, electric shocks, various forms of sodomy, and endless beatings, to say nothing of more psychological forms of torture such as sexual humiliation and torture of family members.

In February 2006, Human Rights First issued “Command's Responsibility,” a report on 98 deaths in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, endorsed by two retired generals and an admiral. The dead included eight people confirmed tortured to death; another 37 suspected or confirmed homicides; and a tell-tale lack of information about 48 more who died of “undetermined” or “unannounced” causes.

Until we succeed in ending the U.S. occupation and restoring genuine sovereignty and independence to Iraq, preventing the torture and killing of Iraqi civilians by U.S. forces has to be a top priority. Apart from the brief and localized scandal over the pictures from Abu Ghraib, this is a topic that the political debate in Congress and the corporate media have scrupulously avoided. Senator Bob Graham told his colleagues in October 2002 that "Blood is going to be on your hands", and they are now in it up to their armpits, even as they deny both the carnage and their role in continuing and escalating it. Until this horror comes to an end, Americans must join UNAMI in publicizing, condemning and demanding accountability for every single act of illegal, indiscriminate and excessive killing by American forces in Iraq, with particular attention to the mass killing of Iraqi civilians by U.S. air strikes.

Source: Global Policy Forum


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