By David Gritten
BBC News website
Recent figures from the campaign group Iraq Body Count put the minimum
number of civilians killed in Iraq since the US-led invasion three
years ago at between 33,710 and 37,832.
Although many of those deaths were caused by insurgent attacks,
multi-national forces stationed in Iraq ostensibly to protect the
population have been responsible for a significant number
civilians have been killed during major offensives by US-led forces
against insurgents in cities such as Falluja, and many others have died
after lethal force was used at military checkpoints.
Military commanders have said those killed were
“collateral damage” or the unfortunate victims of “crossfire” between
their troops and militants.
But the announcement that US military investigators
have flown to Iraq to study allegations that their troops deliberately
shot dead at least 15 civilians in Anbar Province in November has cast
doubt on some of those claims.
‘Riddled with bullets’
A US statement at the time said the civilians, including seven women
and three children, died in a roadside bomb explosion that also killed
a marine in the western town of Haditha.
But survivors and those who saw the bodies said the account was not true.
“Their bodies were riddled with bullets, there was evidence that there
had been gunfire inside their homes, there were blood spatters inside
their homes,” Bobby Ghosh, a journalist who took up the case for Time
magazine, told the BBC.
“It was quite clear that these people were killed
indoors, which couldn’t possibly have happened if they’d been involved
in a roadside blast.”
An initial military inquiry found the two families had
indeed been shot dead in their homes by the marines, but it described
the deaths as “collateral damage”.
The report has now prompted the US Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS) to determine the motives behind the killing.
The NCIS will have to decide whether the civilians were killed by
accident or were targeted by the marines as an act of revenge in a
potential war crime.
Several American veterans of the war in Iraq have told
the BBC’s Newsnight programme that the marines’ reaction to the
roadside bomb attack in Haditha was not an isolated incident.
Specialist Michael Blake, who served in Balad, said it
was common practice to “shoot up the landscape or anything that moved”
after an explosion.
Another veteran, Specialist Jody Casey, who was a scout sniper in Baquba, said he had also seen innocent civilians being killed.
Bombs “go off and you just zap any farmer that’s close to you”, he said.
At that time, when we first got down there, you could basically kill anyone you wanted
Specialist Jody Casey
Mr Casey said he did not take part in any atrocities himself, but was
advised to always carry a shovel. He could then plant this on any
civilian victims to make it look as though they were digging roadside
The US and British governments say the fact the
allegations are being investigated at all shows that progress has been
made in Iraq.
UK International Development Minister Hilary Benn
welcomed the inquiry and said it was important that the perpetrators
were being brought to justice.
“The big difference between now and the 30 years that
people endured under Saddam is that when things happened nobody was
called to account, there was no due process,” he said.
Although human rights groups have also welcomed the launch of the
inquiry, they are quick to point out that the multi-national forces
have investigated only a minority of the reports alleging the unlawful
or deliberate killing of Iraqi civilians.
Nicole Choueiry, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International, told the BBC
News website that those investigations which had taken place had often
been inadequate and shrouded in secrecy.
The victims’ families are also often unaware of how to apply for compensation.
There are no governmental or judicial bodies in Iraq to investigate
human rights violations and the activities of international groups such
as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have been limited by the
deteriorating security situation.
Ms Choueiry believes an official body needs to be set
up to ensure multi-national troops fulfil their mission while abiding
by international humanitarian and human rights law.
“Whether the investigations are civilian or led by the
judiciary, the most important thing is for them to be independent,
impartial and transparent,” she said.
But the effectiveness of such an organisation would be severely
restricted by an order originally issued by the Coalition Provisional
Authority, and renewed by the Iraqi government in 2004, that grants
foreign forces immunity from Iraqi criminal and civil law.
The protection of the fourth Geneva Convention means nothing if the military does not investigate the crime
Instead, the troops remain subject solely to the jurisdiction of their own states.
The US and UK have been accused of limiting the number and power of
criminal prosecutions – in January, a US officer was punished with a
reprimand and a $6,000 fine for killing a captured Iraqi general – or
simply not undertaking them at all.
No prosecution was launched after a US marine was
filmed shooting dead an incapacitated insurgent in a mosque in Falluja
in November 2004.
Phil Shiner, a solicitor representing several Iraqi
families taking the British government to court over human rights
violations, told the BBC News website the small chance of anything
being investigated effectively makes redundant the fourth Geneva
Convention, which protects civilians in times of war or under
occupation by a foreign power.
“The protection of the fourth Geneva Convention means nothing if the military does not investigate the crime,” he said.
Mr Shiner has challenged the immunity of British troops in Iraq and
their right to run their own investigations by arguing that European
human rights law applied during their operations.
The UK High Court ruled in December that the British
government would have to hold an “independent and effective” inquiry
into the death of a man from Basra, Baha Mousa, because he died while
in British custody.
Although the High Court also said it would be
“premature” to conclude the British government was in breach of the
European Convention on Human Rights before the outcome of the
ministry’s own investigation was known, such a ruling could have
profound consequences for the armed forces.
It has considerably strengthened the case for the prosecution of soldiers found to have acted unlawfully.