Villagers enraged and baffled by American show of force

US troops accused of indiscriminate use of firepower in countering guerrilla attacks
Click to follow
The Independent Online

US troops, in their largest military operation since the end of the war, are trying to stamp out resistance in farming villages along the Tigris river north of Baghdad, but their massive use of firepower has infuriated Iraqis in the area.

"I suppose it was a successful operation from the American point of view," said Salah al-Jaburi bitterly as he pointed to two bloodstained quilts on which two men died when US troops had tried to arrest them in the middle of the night in the village of Aldhluaia, earlier in the week.

The quilts were on display beside a tent where several hundred villagers had gathered to mourn three men from Aldhluaia killed in "Operation Peninsula Strike" during which 4,000 US soldiers last week occupied a string of prosperous fruit-growing villages near the town of Balad, 60 miles north of the capital.

Mawlud al-Jaburi, who was arrested along with 450 other people, said he was mystified why Aldhluaia had been singled out. "We were pleased when Saddam fell," he insisted. "We have not fired a single bullet at the Americans." According to Mr Jaburi, all the villagers are members of the large Jubur tribe, which had been out of favour with Saddam Hussein for the last 12 years because senior officers from the tribe were involved in two attempted coups against him.

The purpose of Peninsula Strike, which started on Monday, appears to have been to lay on a massive display of force to show that the US is truly in control of central Iraq, in the wake of a series of pin-prick guerrilla attacks that have left 40 American soldiers dead since the beginning of May. If so, the operation has been counter-productive. "Before I was afraid of Saddam. Now I am afraid of the Americans," said Mohammed, an elderly farmer too frightened to give his family name.

It is not clear how many Iraqis were killed in the operation. On Friday a US spokesman said 27 Iraqis had been killed after a group of fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades at a tank, although officers on the ground gave a much lower figure. The Americans counter-attacked with Bradley fighting vehicles and Apache helicopters. Although there have been very few guerrilla attacks, US troops are responding to any perceived threat by immediate use of their overwhelming firepower.

The official American reports of the search operation chillingly resemble those issued at the height of the Vietnam war, with all the dead described as enemy combatants. No American soldiers were killed or wounded.

One of the three dead being mourned in Aldhluaia yesterday was Hashim Alawi, a fisherman who thought some men on a boat on the Tigris were thieves trying to steal his boat, moored by the side of the river. He fired his hunting rifle in their direction. In fact he was shooting at a boatload of American soldiers, who shot back and killed him.

There is other evidence of indiscriminate use of force by the Americans. Outside Aldhluaia a driver called Mohammed Rassim al-Jawari took us to a blue-painted Russian jeep in which the front seat was still covered with dried blood. His cousin died when a soldier fired 30 bullets through the bonnet and windscreen of the vehicle.

One explanation for American aggression is that their commanders see the possession of arms as a sign of hostility to the occupation. But Iraqi farmers are always armed, usually with AK-47 machine guns. Mawlud al-Juburi said: "They didn't find any heavy weapons. Most of what they took away are AK-47s, which we need to protect ourselves. I always carry one when I go into my fields at night."

The sporadic shootings at American troops seem to be spontaneous, and not organised by any centrally directed guerrilla force. But Peninsula Strike and other operations like it are beginning to create an angry mood and a desire for revenge. That can only benefit those who want to drive out the Americans by force.

Civilian toll greater than estimated

By Andrew North in Nasiriyah

At least 1,000 people, most of them civilians, were killed in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah during the US invasion, according to new estimates by doctors and human rights groups.

Although Nasiriyah saw the heaviest fighting of the war, such high figures from this one city suggest the civilian toll throughout Iraq - estimated by the Associated Press agency as at least 3,240 - could prove to be much higher than was thought.

Nasiriyah's largest hospital recorded more than 600 deaths directly related to the fighting and treated over 3,000 people for injuries. "Most of them were civilians," said the hospital director, Dr Kamal Ali, but he did not deny some military personnel had been treated there.

For the whole city, with a population of about 350,000, the death toll could be well over 1,000, Dr Ali said. Other smaller hospitals were similarly inundated with casualties, he explained, and many of those killed would have been quickly buried, in accordance with Muslim tradition.

An Iraqi group called the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (Civic), which is trying to compile a total for the entire country, has come up with similar figures. Its researchers believe 1,117 people died in Nasiriyah as a result of the fighting, the vast majority civilians. This compares to an AP estimate of 1,896 civilian deaths in Baghdad - a city some 14 times larger.

More than 30 American troops were killed during the battle for Nasiriyah, on a key crossing of the river Euphrates. Most were US Marines who faced determined resistance from Fedayeen militia fighters and other paramilitary-type units. US commanders said the Iraqis' guerrilla-style tactics made civilian casualties inevitable, but claimed they minimised casualties by using precision weapons.

Barzan, a former Fedayeen member, admitted his unit used schools and hospitals as cover, but said it was fear of the regime rather than loyalty that kept the force fighting. "The government was still in Baghdad. We were all frightened, it was still Baghdad, Baghdad, Saddam, Saddam."

At the hospital, Dr Ali insisted the bloodshed had been worth it to get rid of Saddam: "This is the least price ... because there was daily killing and daily suffering under the previous regime." Even Muaid Khalid Yunis, another Nasiriyah resident, who said 14 members of his family were killed by "criminal" Marines who opened up on the truck in which they were travelling, admitted he was glad Saddam Hussein's regime is finished.

'Nasiriyah: Battle for the Bridges', a documentary by Andrew North, is broadcast on BBC Radio 4, Thursday 19 June at 8pm