Civilian death toll rises

04 April 2003
Surround, contain and move on. This was the strategy of American and British troops when they entered southern Iraq in late March. But carrying out the plan has proved less straightforward than expected.

The Iraqi command structure remained intact as the war entered its second week despite the 'shock and awe' tactics of the US-led forces, consisting of a massive aerial bombardment of military targets and government buildings in order to convince the enemy that opposition is futile. Nor have Iraqi civilians unanimously embraced the coalition troops as liberators. The two market bombings in Baghdad, where at least 67 civilians lost their lives, have exacerbated Iraqi hostility towards the military attacks.

On March 29, a car bomb attack killed four US soldiers at a US military checkpoint near Najaf. A man posing as a taxi driver waved to soldiers as if asking for help. When they approached, the vehicle exploded.

While US commanders deny that the attack meant that the Iraqi administration was 'getting a little bit desperate', it is clear that the suicide bombings pose an unexpected threat - not only to the invading forces, but also to establishing friendly relations between troops and civilians. Every Iraqi will now be considered a potential suicide bomber.

Iraqi Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan said at a news conference in Baghdad that such attacks would become 'routine military policy'.

The suicide bombing at Najaf has created a hazy line between Iraqi military and civilians. In at least one case, US troops adopted a shoot first, ask questions later tactic, firing on a civilian car at another checkpoint on 31 March and killing 10 unarmed civilians.

The US military on 2 April issued guidelines authorising troops to detain civilians 'who interfere with mission accomplishment'. In the battleground city of Nasiriyah, marines have rounded up more than 300 Iraqi men in civilian clothing. The men are suspected of involvement with the Fedayeen militia.

According to Human Rights Watch, feigning non-combatant or civilian status to deceive the enemy is a violation of the rules of war. Said Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch: 'Any such blurring of the line between combatant and non-combatant puts all Iraqis at greater risk.'

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