According to a U.S. Central Command statement, seven Iraqi women and children were killed and two others injured Monday when U.S. Army soldiers opened fire on a van packed with some 13 civilians after it failed to stop at a checkpoint in the desert near Najaf, some 100 miles south of Baghdad.
Soldiers guarding the checkpoint motioned to the vehicle to stop, fired warning shots and then fired into the vehicle’s engine to get it to stop. When the driver ignored the warnings, troops fired into the vehicle as a last resort according to the U.S. military statement.
An account by a Washington Post reporter who was at the checkpoint at the time of the incident states that 10 Iraqis were killed in the misfire.
According to the story in the Post, an Army captain on the scene admonished soldiers for not firing warning shots quickly enough at the vehicle, which was packed with 15 Iraqi civilians and their belongings. M2 Bradley fighting vehicles then launched about half a dozen shots of canon fire into the car.
Medics on the scene gave the survivors 10 body bags and U.S. officials also offered an unspecified amount of money to compensate them for their loss according to the account in the Post.
“It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen, and I hope I never see it again,” Sgt. Mario Manzano, an Army medic the Third Infantry Division, later told the Post’s William Branigin of the civilian deaths.
Manzano said one of the women wounded in the incident sat in the vehicle holding the bodies of two of her children. “She didn’t want to get out of the car,” he told Branigin.
U.S. Central Command spokesman Brigadier General Vincent Brooks told reporters Tuesday that the discrepancy in deaths can be attributed to the “fog of war” and that the incident is being investigated.
“We’ll find the ultimate truth when it’s at the end of the course of examination, not at the beginning,” Brooks said of the investigation.
U.S. personnel at military checkpoints in Iraq have been on heightened alert since a suicide bomber drove a car packed with explosives up to a checkpoint on Saturday, killing four U.S. Marines who approached the vehicle.
In a separate development, U.S. Marines shot and killed an unarmed Iraqi driver at a military checkpoint in southern Iraq Tuesday, shortly after the incident near Najaf. The man’s passenger was badly wounded.
According to wire reports, one Marine on the scene said he feared the man was a suicide bomber.
Despite the civilian deaths, U.S. soldiers will not change their current checkpoint procedures or rules of engagement, Brig. Gen. Brooks told reporters during the daily U.S. Central Command briefing in Qatar on Tuesday.
“We have not had a change of the rules of engagement in recent days,” Brooks said.
“At checkpoints…we’re trying to get some separation between a potential threat and the force that is being protected,” he said.
“There will be occasions where civilians will be put in harm’s way,” Brooks added.
Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps General Peter Pace reaffirmed during a Monday NewsHour interview that rules of engagement for soldiers at checkpoints have not changed.
“Our soldiers on the ground have an absolute right to defend themselves,” Pace told Jim Lehrer. “They will always — if they can try — to find a way to stop a vehicle like that without having to actually fire at it. But in the final analysis, when their lives are threatened and of course they thought they were, they will shoot.”
“They absolutely did the right thing; they tried to warn the vehicle to stop, it did not stop,” Pace explained. “And it was unusual that that vehicle would be full of only women and that the driver was a woman. So we need to find out why it was that they were acting the way they did.”