Free-Fire Zone

Haditha MorgueIn Vietnam, the United States Military carried out many missions in what the military calls "Free-Fire Zones" . These "zones" where areas where, according to the military’s "rules of engagement", an unidentified person was considered an enemy and the soldiers could shoot anyone they considered hostile. Activities in "free-fire zones" have led to massive civilian casualties and would have been violations of the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.

The sergeant who led the raid in Haditha has indicated through his lawyer that he and his squad did not violate the "rules of engagement" and did not intentionally kill innocent civilians. He conceded that "collateral damage" had occurred but it was not intentional:

Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, 26, told his attorney that several civilians were killed Nov. 19 when his squad went after insurgents who were firing at them from inside a house. The Marine said there was no vengeful massacre, but he described a house-to-house hunt that went tragically awry in the middle of a chaotic battlefield.

"It will forever be his position that everything they did that day was following their rules of engagement and to protect the lives of Marines," said Neal A. Puckett, who represents Wuterich in the ongoing investigations into the incident. "He’s really upset that people believe that he and his Marines are even capable of intentionally killing innocent civilians."

The Marines’ defense strategy for the Haditha massacre is beginning to emerge. According to the lawyer, the Marines received AK-47 fire from the direction of the houses where the civilians were later killed by the Marines. After receiving fire, the Marines attacked the houses:

A four-man team of Marines, including Wuterich, kicked in the door and found a series of empty rooms, noticing quickly that there was one room with a closed door and people rustling behind it, Puckett said. They then kicked in that door, tossed a fragmentation grenade into the room, and one Marine fired a series of "clearing rounds" through the dust and smoke, killing several people, Puckett said.

The Marine who fired the rounds — Puckett said it was not Wuterich — had experience clearing numerous houses on a deployment in Fallujah, where Marines had aggressive rules of engagement.

Although it was almost immediately apparent to the Marines that the people dead in the room were men, women and children — most likely civilians — they also noticed a back door ajar and believed that insurgents had slipped through to a house nearby, Puckett said. The Marines stealthily moved to the second house, kicking in the door, killing one man inside and then using a frag grenade and more gunfire to clear another room full of people, he said.

Wuterich, not having found the insurgents, told the team to stop and headed back to the platoon leader to reassess the situation, Puckett said, adding that his client knew a number of civilians had just been killed. [Emphasis added by me.]

The sergeant is claiming that the "rules or engagement" allowed them to enter and fire indiscriminately inside civilian homes without confirmation that there were enemy elements inside. They also entered a second house on a hunch that someone may have left the first house and gone to the second house. They proceeded to kill the occupants of the second house based on their hunch. The door that was left ajar apparently was by the woman fleeing the massacre with the surviving infant.

The sergeant’s explanation of the killings in the third house is as follows:

After going through the houses, Wuterich moved a small group of Marines to the roof of a nearby building to watch the area, Puckett said. At one point, they saw a man in all-black clothing running from one of the houses they had searched. The Marines killed him, Puckett said.

They then noticed another man in all black scurrying between two houses across the street. When they went to investigate, the Marines found a courtyard filled with women and children and asked where the man was, Puckett said.

When the civilians pointed to a third house, the Marines attempted to enter and found a man with an AK-47 inside, flanked by three other men; the first Marine to enter tried to fire his weapon, but it jammed, Puckett said. The Marines then killed those four men.

It is worth noting that this explanation differs from the Iraqi version of events. The apparent point blank gunshot wounds also contradicts the sergeant’s version of events. This explanation also directly contradicts the two versions of events offered by the Marine Corps to the press. The sergeant’s lawyer believes that those versions were the result of "miscommunication".

The irony here is that if the Marine sergeant is successful in his defense, then the Marines who committed the killings will be innocent but the United States Military will be guilty. Either these killings were perpetrated in cold blood by rogue Marines or these killings were a result of very loose "rules of engagement".

Let us assume for a moment that the sergeant is telling the truth and the "rules of engagement" allow American soldiers to go into Iraqi civilians’ homes and shoot everyone inside without establishing that they are the enemy. Let us assume that it is good enough for American soldiers in a civilian populated urban area to establish that gunfire originated from the general direction of some houses and then to enter those houses and kill everyone inside. The obvious question is how many more massacres have taken place under these "rules of engagement"?

These "rules of engagement" are a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. If in fact, the United States is an "occupying power" in Iraq, which it certainly is, it has the obligation to protect the civilian population. Iraqi urban areas with civilian populations are not enemy territory. This is a counter-insurgency, not a war on a battlefield. You cannot indiscriminately shoot women and children. You cannot assume that someone is the enemy first. If you are doing that, you are committing war crimes. If the United States Military "rules of engagement" in Iraq allow for the killing of persons in their homes indiscriminately, those "rules of engagement" are designed to lead to war crimes.

For those who might be tempted to answer that this is a "different" kind of war and the enemy has no regard for human life and hides within the civilian population, I say to you learn some history. This is not the first counter-insurgency operation in the history of the world. All insurgents have hidden within the civilian population. If the Bush Administration has decided that it must kill civilians in order to stop the insurgency than it should say so. Instead of hiding behind the nonsense of how we have "freed" the Iraqis, we should just admit that we consider them the "enemy" and we are ready to kill them without provocation. Let the chips fall where they may and let the world cry war crimes! After all, who will try the United States? We have not ratified the International Criminal Court.

So, here is the ugly reality then. Either the Marine squad is guilty of war crimes, or the United States is guilty of war crimes. Take your pick. The outcome is not pretty. Either way, the people of Iraq are losing their lives as freedom continues to march over their corpses.

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4 Responses to Free-Fire Zone

  1. MHB says:

    It is a different kind of war if you buy the idea that “we’re fighting them there so we don’t have to fight them here.” Using that logic, the civlians are collateral damage worth taking because it’s saving lives here. I’m not sure how many people really buy that bs anymore. I’m convinced the talking heads that still spout that line about the “war on terror” are simply being cynical and have no rationale for staying.

    The fact that we won’t leave means we leave the troops in an hostile environment without a goal to fight for. If you listen to them, they’re there for each other, not the Iragis. The Iraqis don’t like our troops and they don’t like the Iraqis. We’ve been killing civilians (and journalists) for three years now – legally, according to the rules of engagement. Bullets in the heads of women and children at close range is what’s new here. But don’t expect civilian deaths at the hands of our troops to stop until we’re gone. Bush created this no win situation that our troops must live with.

  2. Mash says:

    MHB, sadly, I am afraid you are right. There will be more Hadithas, and there probably have been already. Only real difference is this time there was videotape.

  3. Kel says:

    That story simply leaves my mouth hanging open.

    And the fact that he now produces a book with that title makes you shake your head in despair.

    And I’m sure you’re right. I’m sure there’s a lot more of this going on that we never hear about.

  4. Pingback: Think Progress » Bush Administration Developing Plans To Keep 50,000 U.S. Troops In Iraq For Decades

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