The United States should hold a "full, independent and impartial" inquiry into the "apparent use of excessive force" by American troops who allegedly opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators in the Iraqi town of Fallujah, according to a report issued yesterday by Human Rights Watch.
As debate grows over the bungled aftermath of the invasion, the group also accuses US authorities of following a "recipe for disaster" by placing combat-ready soldiers in a volatile environment without adequate training, translators or crowd control devices.
The report's publication came as another US soldier was killed, this time by a sniper in Baghdad, bringing the number of American troops killed since the end of major combat operations to about 50. In a parallel development, guerrillas carried out drive-by shootings at several public buildings - including Fallujah's mayor's office and courthouse - a new stage of violence that seems to be an effort to deter Iraqi officials from co-operating with the US.
American military commanders have attempted to crush the increasingly organised resistance. They say they have conducted 69 raids and detained more than 400 people during a three-day operation in Baghdad and northern Iraq.
The bloodbath in Fallujah on 28 April - a large Sunni Muslim town 35 miles west of Baghdad which has become one of the centre of opposition to the US-British occupation - has been the subject of intense dispute.
Iraqi witnesses and hospital officials say 17 people were killed and up to 70 injured when US troops from the 82nd Airborne Division fired without provocation on an unarmed crowd of protesters outside a local school, which the army had taken over as a base.
The US military claim its soldiers were fired on by gunmen among the demonstrators, and from rooftops, and replied with "precision fire".
The 18-page findings by Human Rights Watch (HRW) challenges the American explanation, and highlights some crucial failings in their approach to the now increasingly messy occupation of Iraq.
It says its investigators "did not find conclusive evidence of bullet damage on the school where US soldiers were based". That confirms the findings of The Independent whose correspondents also examined the scene; it is in striking contrast to some media reports which described the school as "pocked with bullet holes".
HRW states the absence of such evidence places "into serious question" the Americans' assertion they had come under fire from individuals.
In contrast, the buildings across the street - in front of which the demonstrators were gathered - "had extensive evidence of multi-calibre bullet impacts that were wider and more sustained than would have been caused by the 'precision fire' with which the soldiers maintained they responded, leading to the civilian casualties that day". The report concludes: "Witness testimony and ballistic evidence suggest US troops responded with excessive force to a perceived threat." Two days later, the US military shot three more Iraqis in a crowd that was throwing rocks at an army convoy as it approached another US base at a former Baath party building in Fallujah. The Americans have asserted the convoy was fired on; HRW found "no clear evidence" of that, and suggests the US forces again responded with disproportionate force.
The HRW report does not wholly rule out the possibility that there were - as US military officials claim - "agents provocateurs" within the crowds who fired at the troops in both cases. But it points out ballistics evidence is inconclusive, and Iraqi witnesses unanimously say there was no shooting at the Americans.
But it says one conclusion is inescapable: "US military and political authorities who placed combat-ready soldiers in the highly volatile environment without law enforcement training, translators, and crowd control devices followed a recipe for disaster.
"They entered a town that had to some extent been traumatised by the air campaign, and they apparently had not adapted to the post-conflict role of policing, crowd-control and community relations."
It continues: "The 82nd Airborne ... lacked some of the key tools for an effective law enforcement mission."
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