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Did Rumsfeld Authorize War Crimes? The Secret Rules of Engagement in Iraq

The Secret Rules of Engagement in Iraq

by STEPHEN SOLDZ

Wikileaks has obtained the long kept secret Rules of Engagement (ROE) for U.S. troops in Iraq. This document sets out the rules guiding authorized U.S. troop actions in that occupation. While the Wikileaks document dates from 2005, as these ROEs generally change slowly the rules for today are likely similar, though we can’t be sure, of course, to what extent more recent ROE’s differ.
Among several interesting nuggets in the ROE, it provides indications that U.S. attacks likely to result in civilian deaths required authorization at the top of the Pentagon, by the SECDEF (Secretary of Defense). Thus, the ROE states repeatedly; "If the target is in a HIGH CD [collateral damage] area, SECDEF approval is required." And what is the definition of a High Collateral Damage area? The ROE contains a set of explicit definitions of its terms. There we find High Collateral Damage Targets defined as:

"Those targets that, if struck, have a ten percent probability of causing collateral damage through blast debris and fragmentation and are estimated to result in significant collateral effects on noncombatant persons and structures, including:

(A) Non-combatant casualties estimated at 30 or greater;

(B) Significant effects on Category I No Strike protected sites in accordance with Ref D; (

C) In the case of dual-use facilities, effects that significantly impact the non-combatant population, including significant effects on the environment/facilities/infrastructure not related to an adversary’s war making ability; or

(D) Targets in close proximity to known human shields."

Thus, all attacks, except those in self-defense or active pursuit, with a reasonable possibility of harming 30 or more civilians needed approval from Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. Presumably such approval would need to be in writing. The ROE thus suggest that there may exist an extensive documentary record of requests, and possibly Rumsfeld’s approval or rejection, for attacks with the potential for resulting in significant civilian casualties. Congress should demand access to these documents to determine the extent to which attacks resulting in civilian casualties were authorized, potentially providing insight into who was responsible for possible war crimes committed in the course of the occupation.

While much of the rest of the ROE appears rather unsurprising, there are a couple of other interesting aspects to the document. One is that the main "hostile forces," from the U.S. perspective are the Baath remnants, such as the Special Republican Guard and the Baath Party Militia. There is no mention of Iraqi al-Qaida or its predecessors. These predecessors, led by al-Zarqawi, had identified with and pledged allegiance to al-Qaida as early as October, 2004, yet they receive no mention in the ROE. The ROE rather refers to Baath forces that "have transitioned from overt conventional resistance to insurgent methods of resistance."

While the Sunni al-Qaida predecessors do not make the list of hostile forces, the Shia-based Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr does make the list of "Declared Hostile Forces," However, as of the ROE’s writing, this status was "suspended and such individuals will not be engaged except in self-defense."

Another interesting feature of the ROE is a complete ignoring of the language barriers separating U.S. troops from the Iraqi populace. Thus, in a section on graduated force, the first stage is "shout verbal warnings to halt." There is not even a mention of the fact that most Iraqis cannot understand warnings shouted in English. In general, the ROE is notable for lacking any recognition that, in an "insurgency," there are at best blurry boundaries between combatants and noncombatants. Thus, there is no emphasis of the need to take extraordinary measures to protect the civilian population. Rather, it provides a rationale for virtually any attacks:

"US Forces may always use force, up to and including deadly force, to neutralize and/or detain individuals who commit hostile acts or exhibit hostile intent against US Forces or Coalition Forces."

As we have seen repeatedly, from the numerous roadblock killings of civilians to the Haditha massacre, this ROE authorization to use force can be used to provide cover for virtually any civilian killings. The ROE suggests that preventing such deaths was low on the priority list of those officials writing the rules of engagement for the occupation. Even so, a military study found that less than half of US occupation soldiers would report a unit member for violating an ROE.

Thus, even the limited protections provided civilians in the ROE were often not present on the ground.

STEPHEN SOLDZ is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He maintains the Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice web site and the Psyche, Science, and Society blog.