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Carnage From the Air
Posted on Jul 9, 2007
A Blur of Civilian Deaths
But first things first. Let’s start with a partial list of recently reported air power “incidents” (dates approximate), all of which resulted in significant civilian casualties:
June 18: An “airstrike against a suspected al-Qaeda hideout” in the southeastern Afghan province of Paktika is ordered after “nefarious activities” have been observed at the site, which includes a mosque and a madrassa (religious school). Almost immediately, news arrives that seven children have been killed in the attack. The initial response: “Maj. Chris Belcher, spokesman for the coalition, said there had been no sign of children at the facility in the hours before the strike, and blamed al-Qaeda for trying to use a civilian facility as a shield.” (According to another spokesman, Sgt. 1st Class Dean Welch, “If we knew that there were children inside the building, there was no way that that air strike would have occurred.”)
Later, up to 100 civilians are reported to have been killed in related fighting, though the figures vary with the news story. Subsequently, U.S. military officials admit that the air strike “likely missed its primary target,” an al-Qaeda commander, and that “contrary to previous statements, the U.S. military knew there were children at the compound.” Thinking they had a key al-Qaeda figure in their sights, they launched the attack anyway.
June 21: A U.S. air strike aimed at a “booby-trapped house” in the Iraqi city of Baquba misses its target and “accidentally” hits another house, wounding 11 civilians, according to the U.S. military. The incident is declared “under investigation.”
In the larger Baquba incursion, Operation Arrowhead Ripper, part of the President’s “surge plan” for the country, civilian casualties from the air (and ground) are evidently significantly more widespread than generally reported in the American media. A BBC report notes at least 12 civilian casualties, including three women, on the operation’s first day and quotes the head of the city’s emergency service as saying that there were “certainly more ... but ambulances were being prevented by U.S. troops from going in to evacuate them.” (A Sunni political party in Prime Minister Maliki’s government claims 350 dead civilians in Baquba, mainly due to helicopter attacks.)
Joshua Partlow of the Washington Post, reporting on the Baquba operation, quotes Iraqi refugee Amer Hussein Jasm, a refugee from a nearby town, saying: “The airplanes have been shooting all the houses and people are getting scared, so they ran away.” Partlow also quotes an American lieutenant threatening Iraqis his unit has picked up: “Our planes can blow up this whole city. They have that capability. If we didn’t care about you guys, we wouldn’t place ourselves in danger walking around trying to separate the bad guys from the good guys. When you guys tell us where the bad guys are, you keep innocent people from being hurt.”
June 21: “At least 25 civilians, including nine women, three infants and an elderly village mullah,” are killed in “crossfire” in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan when U.S. air strikes are called in. (” ‘In choosing to conduct such attacks in this location at this time, the risk to civilians was probably deliberate,’ [NATO spokesman Lt. Col. Mike] Smith said [of the Taliban]. ‘It is this irresponsible action that may have led to casualties.’ ”)
June 22: The U.S. military announces that it has killed “17 al-Qaeda gunmen” infiltrating an Iraqi village north of Baquba. (“Iraqi police were conducting security operations in and around the village when Coalition attack helicopters from the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade and ground forces from 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, observed more than 15 armed men attempting to circumvent the IPs and infiltrate the village…. The attack helicopters, armed with missiles, engaged and killed 17 al-Qaeda gunmen and destroyed the vehicle they were using.”)
A BBC report later reveals that the dead are 11 village guards (“some of their bodies cut into small pieces by the munitions used against them”). They were assisting the Iraqi police in trying to protect their village from possible al-Qaeda attacks when rocketed and strafed by American helicopters.
June 22: “NATO and U.S.-led coalition forces killed 60 insurgents [in Afghanistan] near the border with Pakistan, in what was described as the largest insurgent formation crossing the region in six months, the military said Saturday.” That was how the story was first presented, before news of civilian casualties started to trickle out. Later, more defensively, [the] U.S. commander Col. Martin P. Schweitzer would insist that his forces had only targeted “bad guys”: “These individuals clearly had weapons and used them against our aircraft as well as shooting rockets against our positions,” he said. “This required their removal from the battle-space.”
The first accounting of noncombatant dead, reportedly from a U.S. rocket, includes at least five men, three women, and one child, according to a Pakistani Army spokesman. These deaths occurred on the Pakistani side of the border. (According to the Pakistanis, civilians also died on the Afghan side of the border.) This figure is later raised to 12; the place hit identified as a “small hotel”; and the airpower identified as possibly B-52s and Apache helicopters. A report in the Egyptian paper al-Ahram adds: “Sources in Pakistan’s tribal areas ... say 31 of the supposed slain ‘insurgents’ were in fact Pakistan tribesmen and their families, including women and children.”
June 30: In air strikes, again in Helmand province, munitions “slammed into civilian homes.” At least 30 insurgents and civilians are initially reported to have been killed, “including women and children.” These figures later rise precipitously. (” ‘More than 100 people have been killed. But they weren’t Taliban. The Taliban were far away from there,’ said Wali Khan, a member of parliament who represents the area.”) Other reports have 45 civilians and 62 insurgents dying. NATO spokesman later claim civilian deaths were “an order of magnitude less” and that Taliban fighters were firing from well-dug trenches and “continuing their tactic of using women and children as human shields in close combat.”
Given the ongoing uproar over civilian casualties in Afghanistan, an investigation is launched. According to Haji Zahir, “a tribal elder who said he had been in touch with residents of bombed villages”: “People tried to escape from the area with their cars, trucks and tractors, and the coalition airplanes bombed them because they thought they were the enemy fleeing. They told me that they had buried 170 bodies so far.” Thirty-five villagers “fleeing in a tractor-trailer” were reportedly hit from the air—with only two survivors, an old man and his severely wounded son. NATO (American) spokesmen beg to disagree: “The allies returned fire and called in air support, aimed at ‘clearly identified firing positions.’ ”
July 2: An intense mortar barrage aimed at a U.S. base near the largely Shiite city of Diwaniya leads to air strikes by two F-16s that reportedly kill 10 civilians along with Shia militiamen. Among them, it is said, are six children under the age of 12. (” ‘Coalition forces are reviewing the incident to ensure that appropriate and proportionate force was used in responding to the intense attack,’ a U.S. statement said, without referring to any Iraqi casualties.”)
New reports of deaths from air strikes in Afghanistan continue to arrive—108 noncombatants “including women and children” killed in Farah Province on July 6th and 33 killed in Kunar Province, “11 of them on Thursday [July 5th] during a bombardment, and 25 more on Friday as they attended a funeral for the deceased.” American denials are issued and Taliban propaganda blamed. (”[A] US official said Taliban fighters are forcing villagers to say civilians died in fighting—whether or not it is true.”)
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