Patrick Cockburn: Everyone is at risk from trigger-happy US troops

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The Independent Online

I was once making a call on a satellite phone as I stood beside my car in Abu Ghraib market. While I was talking, a patrol of US Humvees drove past, and I wondered why they had stopped 100 yards down the road.

The reason turned out to be me. I had just got back into the car and was beginning to drive off when several American soldiers came charging towards us with guns levelled. They were screaming contradictory orders, such as "Stop the car!", "Get down on the ground!" and "Put your hands on the engine!" We lay in the dust as they prodded us with their rifles. I said I was a British journalist as they grabbed the phone out of my hand.

The problem turned out to be that in militant areas like Abu Ghraib, US troops suspected that anybody they saw with a satellite or mobile phone was intending to detonate a bomb. If I and the two Iraqis in the car had not immediately grasped that the soldiers were shouting at us, and had gone on driving, there was a fair chance they would have shot us.

This has happened to many Iraqis, after all - one senior, very pro-American minister in Baghdad warned his driver that the greatest danger was not being assassinated by insurgents, but being accidentally shot by US troops.

It is often difficult to know what has caused an American soldier to open fire. An Iraqi police general stopped his car to drop off some friends by the side of the road, and was badly wounded in the head. An Iraqi journalist friend was shot dead when driving to a swimming pool. In Baiji, north of Baghdad, a man sent his son to adjust the satellite TV dish on the roof of the house and the boy was killed by a US patrol.

US commanders never seem to understand the rage among Iraqis at these killings. If any official information is released, it often vaguely claims that "a terrorist" was shot after behaving suspiciously. And as general security in Iraq has deteriorated since the summer of 2004, killings of civilians by US troops have been reported less and less. Not only are journalists, foreign and Iraqi, being murdered or killed in fighting, but the Iraqi government has told its own Health Ministry to stop revealing how many Iraqis were being killed and by whom.

Dr Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Iraqi politician, said that it would be in the Americans' interests to end or modify the legal protection under which their troops operate. But the priority of the US army in Iraq is always the protection of its own soldiers regardless. A ludicrously excessive amount of firepower was used by the US in capturing Fallujah in 2004 and Tal Afar in 2005, destroying much of both cities.

The devastating roadside bombs, which have killed so many American soldiers, often appear to be detonated by one man. But equally often the reaction of US troops is to fire in all directions, and innocent Iraqis are the victims. Above all, as the war has gone on, there is the growing sense among many US soldiers that all Iraqis are their enemies, so it matters little whom they kill.