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Iraq’s Civilian Dead

The bomb was delivered by a USAF F-16. (Don’t you warm to that word, ‘delivered’ – it’s so wonderfully innocuous : “I delivered some flowers”; “You delivered a baby” ; “They delivered a 500 pound GBU-30 bomb that obliterated a house and blew its occupants to bits”.) It was guided to its target by a precision system that depends on amazingly sophisticated devices. It can’t miss. And on January 8 it didn’t miss. It smashed into the house it was programmed to destroy.

But it was the wrong house.

***

In all the reports of attacks on US forces and general mayhem in Iraq in early January there was one news item that verged on the banal. It was certainly treated by US mainstream media as if it were completely unimportant, and in the eyes of the US military it was a mere blip, a trivial incident in their records of explosions and deaths, with an average of 75 attacks taking place day in, day out (very few of which we hear anything about). It was about the wrongly-directed precision-guided US bomb that killed Iraqi civilians – only a dozen or so – in the town of Aitha.

The bomb itself was not to blame for being misdirected. It could hardly be at fault because it performed the manifest duty for which it was constructed at a handsome profit for McDonnell Douglas. (It’s nice to know that some people are doing so well out of this war.) It zoomed down as intended and exploded with devastating force. It was a good and obedient bomb that did what it was told to do. And it killed an Iraqi family in the course of “a cordon and search operation to capture an anti-Iraqi force cell leader”, according to a US military statement. So let’s examine this official pronouncement.

We’ll leave the “anti-Iraqi” reference for the moment, because this is crude propaganda aimed at influencing an audience that doesn’t exist beyond the revolving-eyeball supporters of the Bush war on Iraq. But if we consider the tactical and reporting aspects, the part concerned with professional military application, it tells us a great deal about how the US Command in Iraq is performing its duties.

If a military operation is intended to capture someone it is obvious that soldiers have been ordered to take him alive. A cordon and search operation is an effective method of doing this, although it is professionally demanding. What usually happens (or should happen) is that in dead of night a unit of troops (their number dependant on the size of the area to be cordoned) silently surrounds the village or urban locality to be searched. The operation has to be rehearsed beforehand, and every single soldier must know exactly where to go, which is basic routine for a well-trained army.
Given good troops, clear orders, and, especially, capable junior leaders (corporals to lieutenants), the area can be sealed off effectively. Once that is done, the sub-units tasked to capture the designated person move into their sectors through the cordon, before dawn. Their intelligence about the location of the wanted person is precise (it must be, otherwise there would be no point in the operation), so they are able to grab him quickly. If the target and his supporters fire on those who wish to take him, then the most effective means of dealing with such a hardly unexpected situation is to fight through in classic infantry style. If it is necessary in that process to kill the people who opened fire on the searchers, then so be it.

This particular operation was obviously a botched job and was no more a professional cordon and search than it was a moon-shot (like the Tora Bora operation in Afghanistan, when bin Laden escaped). Part of the shambles was misdirection of an F-16 pilot.

Pilots of F-16s don’t capture suspects. Pilots – who are people, too : it’s not “an F-16” that kills, as if it were some sort of out-of-earth robot, beyond human control – use precision-guided bombs to destroy buildings. And in this so-called cordon and search operation a pilot was ordered to send a 500 pound bomb thundering explosively into the wrong building. The person whom it was intended to capture was not there. If he had been there, he would have been blown to bits, not captured. But other people were blown to bits. Just an Iraqi family, of course. Who cares?

The military can keep the public confused almost indefinitely concerning the effects of their weapons. Depleted uranium? Nah – fuggedahboudid ; no problems : we absolutely deny there are residual radiation effects lasting for generations ; trust us. And cluster bombs that scatter bomblets looking like soft drink cans that kill kids over decades? – ‘We don’t use them except in carefully-controlled circumstances’; trust us. And so on.

500 pounds doesn’t sound an enormous weight, and not many of us understand what a GBU-30 bomb can do. Generally speaking the only layfolk who know this sort of thing are seriously disturbed war-geeks who get a panting thrill from watching videos of death and destruction. The propagandists are happy to keep it that way, with most people imagining that a 500 pound bomb is just a dinky itsy-bitsy little popping thing that won’t hurt anyone except the bad folks. But think back to the bombings on the island of Bali, Indonesia, in 2002. The most devastating was a car bomb at the Sari night club. The Australian Federal Police estimated that the explosive weighed at most 350 pounds. And that bomb killed 202 people.

And we are expected to believe that a 500 pound bomb thundering down from an F-16 can destroy a single house, precisely (‘surgically’ used to be the OK word, but it fell out of favor), and not affect any other houses around it. You can imagine it : “Excuse me?” “Yes.” “Is this number 22?” “Yes.” – Kabooom. And the houses and people on either side of number 22, and those opposite and behind number 22 are miraculously spared devastation. I believe in the Tooth Fairy, too.

In this case the US military admitted that the house flattened to rubble on January 8 by a 500 pound bomb in the town of Aitha, 30 miles south of Mosul, “was not the intended target for the airstrike. The intended target was another location nearby”.

But in the house that was “not the intended target” were people who had nothing to do with the Iraqis’ guerrilla war against US occupation forces. The owner stated that the bomb killed 14 people. An Associated Press photographer confirmed that four women, three men, and seven children were killed. Naturally, the US military said different. They said five people had been killed. Whom do you believe?

Unfortunately, these days, there is little room for choice because the military in Iraq and Afghanistan have told so many lies to the world concerning their activities. The more high-profile instances were the Keystone Cops farce of the Jessica Lynch ‘rescue’ in Iraq, and the wicked lies that US Army generals told about the death in Afghanistan of Pat Tillman. We were told in great detail how he died leading a charge against the enemy, but in fact he was killed by his own side, by gross incompetence. It is difficult to imagine how the generals thought that they could get away with such blatant mendacity, but they charged ahead and lied their boots off just the same. And of course they did get away with it, because none of them has been disciplined for their dishonorable conduct (and I shall never forgive these disgusting people for causing Mary Tillman, Pat’s mother, so much distress and pain). There are many other less well-known examples of official lying, but these two alone are enough to make it clear that truth is not the military’s priority. (As I write, news came in about a US helicopter crash in western Iraq that killed all 31 on board. The official story is that it went down because of a sandstorm. Such is the reputation of the US military that responsible media outlets immediately consulted Accuweather and other met sources to find out if the military were lying. You have to work hard to engender that sort of distrust.)

Just as important as telling the truth are acceptance of reality and admission of wrongdoing. It seems that some present-day US military representatives are incapable of either, in which inability, alas, they ape and echo the entire Bush administration. The wording of the official statement following the bomb that killed Iraqi civilians on January 8 could have come straight from the Bush White House and does much to explain why it is regarded with contempt by the so much of the world. The phrase “The multinational force in Iraq deeply regrets the loss of possibly innocent lives” should be on page one of the “How Not To Do And Say Things In Iraq” manual.

First, “the multinational force” – which is a joke concept, anyway – had nothing to do with the affair. It was a bomb from a United States Air Force F-16 in support of a United States Army operation that killed the Iraqi kids. There wasn’t any other nation involved.

Second, and crucial in the context of the US Mission in Iraq, is the ludicrous phrase “possibly innocent lives”. Does nobody in the US Command realize how crassly insulting is their use of the word “possibly”? Is it beyond their comprehension that this throwaway line would cause even more resentment among a population that already detests the crash-and-bash-them occupation force? The children of the Iraqi family killed by that wrongly-directed precision-guided bomb were not ‘possibly’ innocent. THEY WERE INNOCENT.

Forget the amateur psyops nonsense about “anti-Iraqi forces”. As observed by the newspaper Al-Arab al-Alamiyah on January 24, “Washington . . . is losing its credibility day by day and the resistance is gaining national legitimacy”, and it is obvious that most Iraqis in the occupied areas (excluding semi-autonomous Kurdistan) are pro-Iraq and very much anti-US, courtesy of the brutal and aggressive behavior of American troops. The Army and Marines have savagely humiliated countless thousands of innocent Iraqis, and phrases like “possibly innocent lives” are starkly offensive to the millions of ordinary people whose only wish is to live in peace. They did not, after all, ask anyone to invade their country and turn it into bloody chaos.

A simple and effective message of apology would have been : “The United States Military Command in Iraq greatly regrets the deaths of civilians in Aitha that were caused by misdirection of a US Air Force bomb. The town elders have been asked to give advice on how best we can make amends for the results of this deplorable failure in our system. We offer our sincere apologies to the relatives of those who died.”

Would Bush say anything like this?

Of course not.

So his military won’t, either. – Smart bombs ; what about the people?

BRIAN CLOUGHLEY writes on military and political affairs. He can be reached through his website www.briancloughley.com

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Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

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