Confessions from U.S. Soldiers in Iraq


Richard Moore

       "I guess while I was there, the general attitude was, A dead
        Iraqi is just another dead Iraqi," said Spc. Jeff Englehart,
        26, of Grand Junction, Colorado.

Original source URL:

Confessions from U.S. Soldiers in Iraq on the Brutal Treatment of Civilians

By Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian, The Nation
Posted on July 13, 2007, Printed on July 13, 2007

Over the past several months The Nation has interviewed fifty combat veterans of
the Iraq War from around the United States in an effort to investigate the 
effects of the four-year-old occupation on average Iraqi civilians. These combat
veterans, some of whom bear deep emotional and physical scars, and many of whom 
have come to oppose the occupation, gave vivid, on-the-record accounts. They 
described a brutal side of the war rarely seen on television screens or 
chronicled in newspaper accounts.

Their stories, recorded and typed into thousands of pages of transcripts, reveal
disturbing patterns of behavior by American troops in Iraq. Dozens of those 
interviewed witnessed Iraqi civilians, including children, dying from American 
firepower. Some participated in such killings; others treated or investigated 
civilian casualties after the fact. Many also heard such stories, in detail, 
from members of their unit. The soldiers, sailors and marines emphasized that 
not all troops took part in indiscriminate killings. Many said that these acts 
were perpetrated by a minority. But they nevertheless described such acts as 
common and said they often go unreported -- and almost always go unpunished.

Court cases, such as the ones surrounding the massacre in Haditha and the rape 
and murder of a 14-year-old in Mah‹mudiya, and news stories in the Washington 
Post, Time, the London Independent and elsewhere based on Iraqi accounts have 
begun to hint at the wide extent of the attacks on civilians. Human rights 
groups have issued reports, such as Human Rights Watch's Hearts and Minds: 
Post-war Civilian Deaths in Baghdad Caused by U.S. Forces, packed with detailed 
incidents that suggest that the killing of Iraqi civilians by occupation forces 
is more common than has been acknowledged by military authorities.

This report marks the first time so many on-the-record, named eyewitnesses from 
within the US military have been assembled in one place to openly corroborate 
these assertions.

While some veterans said civilian shootings were routinely investigated by the 
military, many more said such inquiries were rare. "I mean, you physically could
not do an investigation every time a civilian was wounded or killed because it 
just happens a lot and you'd spend all your time doing that," said Marine 
Reserve Lieut. Jonathan Morgenstein, 35, of Arlington, Virginia. He served from 
August 2004 to March 2005 in Ramadi with a Marine Corps civil affairs unit 
supporting a combat team with the Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade. (All 
interviewees are identified by the rank they held during the period of service 
they recount here; some have since been promoted or demoted.)

Veterans said the culture of this counterinsurgency war, in which most Iraqi 
civilians were assumed to be hostile, made it difficult for soldiers to 
sympathize with their victims -- at least until they returned home and had a 
chance to reflect.

"I guess while I was there, the general attitude was, A dead Iraqi is just 
another dead Iraqi," said Spc. Jeff Englehart, 26, of Grand Junction, Colorado. 
Specialist Englehart served with the Third Brigade, First Infantry Division, in 
Baquba, about thirty-five miles northeast of Baghdad, for a year beginning in 
February 2004. "You know, so what? Š The soldiers honestly thought we were 
trying to help the people and they were mad because it was almost like a 
betrayal. Like here we are trying to help you, here I am, you know, thousands of
miles away from home and my family, and I have to be here for a year and work 
every day on these missions. Well, we're trying to help you and you just turn 
around and try to kill us."

He said it was only "when they get home, in dealing with veteran issues and 
meeting other veterans, it seems like the guilt really takes place, takes root, 

The Iraq War is a vast and complicated enterprise. In this investigation of 
alleged military misconduct, The Nation focused on a few key elements of the 
occupation, asking veterans to explain in detail their experiences operating 
patrols and supply convoys, setting up checkpoints, conducting raids and 
arresting suspects. From these collected snapshots a common theme emerged. 
Fighting in densely populated urban areas has led to the indiscriminate use of 
force and the deaths at the hands of occupation troops of thousands of 

Many of these veterans returned home deeply disturbed by the disparity between 
the reality of the war and the way it is portrayed by the US government and 
American media. The war the vets described is a dark and even depraved 
enterprise, one that bears a powerful resemblance to other misguided and brutal 
colonial wars and occupations, from the French occupation of Algeria to the 
American war in Vietnam and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

"I'll tell you the point where I really turned," said Spc. Michael Harmon, 24, a
medic from Brooklyn. He served a thirteen-month tour beginning in April 2003 
with the 167th Armor Regiment, Fourth Infantry Division, in Al-Rashidiya, a 
small town near Baghdad. "I go out to the scene and [there was] this little, you
know, pudgy little 2-year-old child with the cute little pudgy legs, and I look 
and she has a bullet through her leg. Š An IED [improvised explosive device] 
went off, the gun-happy soldiers just started shooting anywhere and the baby got
hit. And this baby looked at me, wasn't crying, wasn't anything, it just looked 
at me like -- I know she couldn't speak. It might sound crazy, but she was like 
asking me why. You know, Why do I have a bullet in my leg? Š I was just like, 
This is -- this is it. This is ridiculous."

Much of the resentment toward Iraqis described to The Nation by veterans was 
confirmed in a report released May 4 by the Pentagon. According to the survey, 
conducted by the Office of the Surgeon General of the US Army Medical Command, 
just 47 percent of soldiers and 38 percent of marines agreed that civilians 
should be treated with dignity and respect. Only 55 percent of soldiers and 40 
percent of marines said they would report a unit member who had killed or 
injured "an innocent noncombatant."

These attitudes reflect the limited contact occupation troops said they had with
Iraqis. They rarely saw their enemy. They lived bottled up in heavily fortified 
compounds that often came under mortar attack. They only ventured outside their 
compounds ready for combat. The mounting frustration of fighting an elusive 
enemy and the devastating effect of roadside bombs, with their steady toll of 
American dead and wounded, led many troops to declare an open war on all Iraqis.

Veterans described reckless firing once they left their compounds. Some shot 
holes into cans of gasoline being sold along the roadside and then tossed 
grenades into the pools of gas to set them ablaze. Others opened fire on 
children. These shootings often enraged Iraqi witnesses.

In June 2003 Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejía's unit was pressed by a furious crowd in 
Ramadi. Sergeant Mejía, 31, a National Guardsman from Miami, served for six 
months beginning in April 2003 with the 1-124 Infantry Battalion, Fifty-Third 
Infantry Brigade. His squad opened fire on an Iraqi youth holding a grenade, 
riddling his body with bullets. Sergeant Mejía checked his clip afterward and 
calculated that he had personally fired eleven rounds into the young man.

"The frustration that resulted from our inability to get back at those who were 
attacking us led to tactics that seemed designed simply to punish the local 
population that was supporting them," Sergeant Mejía said.

We heard a few reports, in one case corroborated by photo‹graphs, that some 
soldiers had so lost their moral compass that they'd mocked or desecrated Iraqi 
corpses. One photo, among dozens turned over to The Nation during the 
investigation, shows an American soldier acting as if he is about to eat the 
spilled brains of a dead Iraqi man with his brown plastic Army-issue spoon.

"Take a picture of me and this motherfucker," a soldier who had been in Sergeant
Mejía's squad said as he put his arm around the corpse. Sergeant Mejía recalls 
that the shroud covering the body fell away, revealing that the young man was 
wearing only his pants. There was a bullet hole in his chest.

"Damn, they really fucked you up, didn't they?" the soldier laughed.

The scene, Sergeant Mejía said, was witnessed by the dead man's brothers and 

In the sections that follow, snipers, medics, military police, artillerymen, 
officers and others recount their experiences serving in places as diverse as 
Mosul in the north, Samarra in the Sunni Triangle, Nasiriya in the south and 
Baghdad in the center, during 2003, 2004 and 2005. Their stories capture the 
impact of their units on Iraqi civilians.

A Note on Methodology

The Nation interviewed fifty combat veterans, including forty soldiers, eight 
marines and two sailors, over a period of seven months beginning in July 2006. 
To find veterans willing to speak on the record about their experiences in Iraq,
we sent queries to organizations dedicated to US troops and their families, 
including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the antiwar groups Military 
Families Speak Out, Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War and the
prowar group Vets for Freedom. The leaders of IVAW and Paul Rieckhoff, the 
founder of IAVA, were especially helpful in putting us in touch with Iraq War 
veterans. Finally, we found veterans through word of mouth, as many of those we 
interviewed referred us to their military friends.

To verify their military service, when possible we obtained a copy of each 
interviewee's DD Form 214, or the Certificate of Release or Discharge From 
Active Duty, and in all cases confirmed their service with the branch of the 
military in which they were enlisted. Nineteen interviews were conducted in 
person, while the rest were done over the phone; all were tape-recorded and 
transcribed; all but five interviewees (most of those currently on active duty) 
were independently contacted by fact checkers to confirm basic facts about their
service in Iraq. Of those interviewed, fourteen served in Iraq from 2003 to 
2004, twenty from 2004 to 2005 and two from 2005 to 2006. Of the eleven veterans
whose tours lasted less than one year, nine served in 2003, while the others 
served in 2004 and 2005.

The ranks of the veterans we interviewed ranged from private to captain, though 
only a handful were officers. The veterans served throughout Iraq, but mostly in
the country's most volatile areas, such as Baghdad, Tikrit, Mosul, Falluja and 

During the course of the interview process, five veterans turned over 
photographs from Iraq, some of them graphic, to corroborate their claims.


"So we get started on this day, this one in particular," recalled Spc. Philip 
Chrystal, 23, of Reno, who said he raided between twenty and thirty Iraqi homes 
during an eleven-month tour in Kirkuk and Hawija that ended in October 2005, 
serving with the Third Battalion, 116th Cavalry Brigade. "It starts with the 
psy-ops vehicles out there, you know, with the big speakers playing a message in
Arabic or Farsi or Kurdish or whatever they happen to be, saying, basically, 
saying, Put your weapons, if you have them, next to the front door in your 
house. Please come outside, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And we had Apaches 
flying over for security, if they're needed, and it's also a good show of force.
And we're running around, and they -- we'd done a few houses by this point, and 
I was with my platoon leader, my squad leader and maybe a couple other people.

"And we were approaching this one house," he said. "In this farming area, 
they're, like, built up into little courtyards. So they have, like, the main 
house, common area. They have, like, a kitchen and then they have a storage 
shed-type deal. And we're approaching, and they had a family dog. And it was 
barking ferociously, 'cause it's doing its job. And my squad leader, just out of
nowhere, just shoots it. And he didn't -- mother‹fucker -- he shot it and it 
went in the jaw and exited out. So I see this dog -- I'm a huge animal lover; I 
love animals -- and this dog has, like, these eyes on it and he's running around
spraying blood all over the place. And like, you know, What the hell is going 
on? The family is sitting right there, with three little children and a mom and 
a dad, horrified. And I'm at a loss for words. And so, I yell at him. I'm, like,
What the fuck are you doing? And so the dog's yelping. It's crying out without a
jaw. And I'm looking at the family, and they're just, you know, dead scared. And
so I told them, I was like, Fucking shoot it, you know? At least kill it, 
because that can't be fixed. Š

"And -- I actually get tears from just saying this right now, but -- and I had 
tears then, too -- and I'm looking at the kids and they are so scared. So I got 
the interpreter over with me and, you know, I get my wallet out and I gave them 
twenty bucks, because that's what I had. And, you know, I had him give it to 
them and told them that I'm so sorry that asshole did that.

"Was a report ever filed about it?" he asked. "Was anything ever done? Any 
punishment ever dished out? No, absolutely not."

Specialist Chrystal said such incidents were "very common."

According to interviews with twenty-four veterans who participated in such 
raids, they are a relentless reality for Iraqis under occupation. The American 
forces, stymied by poor intelligence, invade neighborhoods where insurgents 
operate, bursting into homes in the hope of surprising fighters or finding 
weapons. But such catches, they said, are rare. Far more common were stories in 
which soldiers assaulted a home, destroyed property in their futile search and 
left terrorized civilians struggling to repair the damage and begin the long 
torment of trying to find family members who were hauled away as suspects.

Raids normally took place between midnight and 5 am, according to Sgt. John 
Bruhns, 29, of Philadelphia, who estimates that he took part in raids of nearly 
1,000 Iraqi homes. He served in Baghdad and Abu Ghraib, a city infamous for its 
prison, located twenty miles west of the capital, with the Third Brigade, First 
Armor Division, First Battalion, for one year beginning in April 2003. His 
descriptions of raid procedures closely echoed those of eight other veterans who
served in locations as diverse as Kirkuk, Samarra, Baghdad, Mosul and Tikrit.

"You want to catch them off guard," Sergeant Bruhns ‹ex‹plained. "You want to 
catch them in their sleep." About ten troops were involved in each raid, he 
said, with five stationed outside and the rest searching the home.

Once they were in front of the home, troops, some wearing Kevlar helmets and 
flak vests with grenade launchers mounted on their weapons, kicked the door in, 
according to Sergeant Bruhns, who dispassionately described the procedure:

"You run in. And if there's lights, you turn them on -- if the lights are 
working. If not, you've got flashlights. Š You leave one rifle team outside 
while one rifle team goes inside. Each rifle team leader has a headset on with 
an earpiece and a microphone where he can communicate with the other rifle team 
leader that's outside.

"You go up the stairs. You grab the man of the house. You rip him out of bed in 
front of his wife. You put him up against the wall. You have junior-level 
troops, PFCs [privates first class], specialists will run into the other rooms 
and grab the family, and you'll group them all together. Then you go into a room
and you tear the room to shreds and you make sure there's no weapons or anything
that they can use to attack us.

"You get the interpreter and you get the man of the home, and you have him at 
gunpoint, and you'll ask the interpreter to ask him: 'Do you have any weapons? 
Do you have any anti-US propaganda, anything at all -- anything -- anything in 
here that would lead us to believe that you are somehow involved in insurgent 
activity or anti-coalition forces activity?'

"Normally they'll say no, because that's normally the truth," Sergeant Bruhns 
said. "So what you'll do is you'll take his sofa cushions and you'll dump them. 
If he has a couch, you'll turn the couch upside down. You'll go into the fridge,
if he has a fridge, and you'll throw everything on the floor, and you'll take 
his drawers and you'll dump them. Š You'll open up his closet and you'll throw 
all the clothes on the floor and basically leave his house looking like a 
hurricane just hit it.

"And if you find something, then you'll detain him. If not, you'll say, 'Sorry 
to disturb you. Have a nice evening.' So you've just humiliated this man in 
front of his entire family and terrorized his entire family and you've destroyed
his home. And then you go right next door and you do the same thing in a hundred

Each raid, or "cordon and search" operation, as they are sometimes called, 
involved five to twenty homes, he said. Following a spate of attacks on soldiers
in a particular area, commanders would normally order infantrymen on raids to 
look for weapons caches, ammunition or materials for making IEDs. Each Iraqi 
family was allowed to keep one AK-47 at home, but according to Bruhns, those 
found with extra weapons were arrested and detained and the operation classified
a "success," even if it was clear that no one in the home was an insurgent.

Before a raid, according to descriptions by several veterans, soldiers typically
"quarantined" the area by barring anyone from coming in or leaving. In pre-raid 
briefings, Sergeant Bruhns said, military commanders often told their troops the
neighborhood they were ordered to raid was "a hostile area with a high level of 
insurgency" and that it had been taken over by former Baathists or Al Qaeda 

"So you have all these troops, and they're all wound up," said Sergeant Bruhns. 
"And a lot of these troops think once they kick down the door there's going to 
be people on the inside waiting for them with weapons to start shooting at 

Sgt. Dustin Flatt, 33, of Denver, estimates he raided "thousands" of homes in 
Tikrit, Samarra and Mosul. He served with the Eighteenth Infantry Brigade, First
Infantry Division, for one year beginning in February 2004. "We scared the 
living Jesus out of them every time we went through every house," he said.

Spc. Ali Aoun, 23, a National Guardsman from New York City, said he conducted 
perimeter security in nearly 100 raids while serving in Sadr City with the 
Eighty-Ninth Military Police Brigade for eleven months starting in April 2004. 
When soldiers raided a home, he said, they first cordoned it off with Humvees. 
Soldiers guarded the entrance to make sure no one escaped. If an entire town was
being raided, in large-scale operations, it too was cordoned off, said Spc. 
Garett Reppenhagen, 32, of Manitou Springs, Colorado, a cavalry scout and sniper
with the 263rd Armor Battalion, First Infantry Division, who was deployed to 
Baquba for a year in February 2004.

Staff Sgt. Timothy John Westphal, 31, of Denver, recalled one summer night in 
2004, the temperature an oppressive 110 degrees, when he and forty-four other US
soldiers raided a sprawling farm on the outskirts of Tikrit. Sergeant Westphal, 
who served there for a yearlong tour with the Eighteenth Infantry Brigade, First
Infantry Division, beginning in February 2004, said he was told some men on the 
farm were insurgents. As a mechanized infantry squad leader, Sergeant Westphal 
led the mission to secure the main house, while fifteen men swept the property. 
Sergeant Westphal and his men hopped the wall surrounding the house, fully 
expecting to come face to face with armed insurgents.

"We had our flashlights and ŠI told my guys, 'On the count of three, just hit 
them with your lights and let's see what we've got here. Wake 'em up!'"

Sergeant Westphal's flashlight was mounted on his M-4 carbine rifle, a smaller 
version of the M-16, so in pointing his light at the clump of sleepers on the 
floor he was also pointing his weapon at them. Sergeant Westphal first turned 
his light on a man who appeared to be in his mid-60s.

"The man screamed this gut-wrenching, blood-curdling, just horrified scream," 
Sergeant Westphal recalled. "I've never heard anything like that. I mean, the 
guy was absolutely terrified. I can imagine what he was thinking, having lived 
under Saddam."

The farm's inhabitants were not insurgents but a family sleeping outside for 
relief from the stifling heat, and the man Sergeant Westphal had frightened 
awake was the patriarch.

"Sure enough, as we started to peel back the layers of all these people 
sleeping, I mean, it was him, maybe two guys Šeither his sons or nephews or 
whatever, and the rest were all women and children," Sergeant Westphal said. "We
didn't find anything.

"I can tell you hundreds of stories about things like that and they would all 
pretty much be like the one I just told you. Just a different family, a 
different time, a different circumstance."

For Sergeant Westphal, that night was a turning point. "I just remember thinking
to myself, I just brought terror to someone else under the American flag, and 
that's just not what I joined the Army to do," he said.


Fifteen soldiers we spoke with told us the information that spurred these raids 
was typically gathered through human intelligence -- and that it was usually 
incorrect. Eight said it was common for Iraqis to use American troops to settle 
family disputes, tribal rivalries or personal vendettas. Sgt. Jesus Bocanegra, 
25, of Weslaco, Texas, was a scout in Tikrit with the Fourth Infantry Division 
during a yearlong tour that ended in March 2004. In late 2003, Sergeant 
Bocanegra raided a middle-aged man's home in Tikrit because his son had told the
Army his father was an insurgent. After thoroughly searching the man's house, 
soldiers found nothing and later discovered that the son simply wanted money his
father had buried at the farm.

After persistently acting on such false leads, Sergeant Bocanegra, who raided 
Iraqi homes in more than fifty operations, said soldiers began to anticipate the
innocence of those they raided. "People would make jokes about it, even before 
we'd go into a raid, like, Oh fucking we're gonna get the wrong house," he said.
"'Cause it would always happen. We always got the wrong house." Specialist 
Chrystal said that he and his platoon leader shared a joke of their own: Every 
time he raided a house, he would radio in and say, "This is, you know, 
Thirty-One Lima. Yeah, I found the weapons of mass destruction in here."

Sergeant Bruhns said he questioned the authenticity of the intelligence he 
received because Iraqi informants were paid by the US military for tips. On one 
occasion, an Iraqi tipped off Sergeant Bruhns's unit that a small Syrian 
resistance organization, responsible for killing a number of US troops, was 
holed up in a house. "They're waiting for us to show up and there will be a lot 
of shooting," Sergeant Bruhns recalled being told.

As the Alpha Company team leader, Sergeant Bruhns was supposed to be the first 
person in the door. Skeptical, he refused. "So I said, 'If you're so confident 
that there are a bunch of Syrian terrorists, insurgents Šin there, why in the 
world are you going to send me and three guys in the front door, because chances
are I'm not going to be able to squeeze the trigger before I get shot.'" 
Sergeant Bruhns facetiously suggested they pull an M-2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle 
up to the house and shoot a missile through the front window to exterminate the 
enemy fighters his commanders claimed were inside. They instead diminished the 
aggressiveness of the raid. As Sergeant Bruhns ran security out front, his 
fellow soldiers smashed the windows and kicked down the doors to find "a few 
little kids, a woman and an old man."

In late summer 2005, in a village on the outskirts of Kirkuk, Specialist 
Chrystal searched a compound with two Iraqi police officers. A friendly man in 
his mid-30s escorted Specialist Chrystal and others in his unit around the 
property, where the man lived with his parents, wife and children, making jokes 
to lighten the mood. As they finished searching -- they found nothing -- a 
lieutenant from his company approached Specialist Chrystal: "What the hell were 
you doing?" he asked. "Well, we just searched the house and it's clear," 
Specialist Chrystal said. The lieutenant told Specialist Chrystal that his 
friendly guide was "one of the targets" of the raid. "Apparently he'd been dimed
out by somebody as being an insurgent," Specialist Chrystal said. "For that 
mission, they'd only handed out the target sheets to officers, and officers 
aren't there with the rest of the troops." Specialist Chrystal said he felt 
"humiliated" because his assessment that the man posed no threat was deemed 
irrelevant and the man was arrested. Shortly afterward, he posted himself in a 
fighting vehicle for the rest of the mission.

Sgt. Larry Cannon, 27, of Salt Lake City, a Bradley gunner with the Eighteenth 
Infantry Brigade, First Infantry Division, served a yearlong tour in several 
cities in Iraq, including Tikrit, Samarra and Mosul, beginning in February 2004.
He estimates that he searched more than a hundred homes in Tikrit and found the 
raids fruitless and maddening. "We would go on one raid of a house and that guy 
would say, 'No, it's not me, but I know where that guy is.' And Šhe'd take us to
the next house where this target was supposedly at, and then that guy's like, 
'No, it's not me. I know where he is, though.' And we'd drive around all night 
and go from raid to raid to raid."

"I can't really fault military intelligence," said Specialist Reppenhagen, who 
said he raided thirty homes in and around Baquba. "It was always a guessing 
game. We're in a country where we don't speak the language. We're light on 
interpreters. It's just impossible to really get anything. All you're going off 
is a pattern of what's happened before and hoping that the pattern doesn't 

Sgt. Geoffrey Millard, 26, of Buffalo, New York, served in Tikrit with the Rear 
Operations Center, Forty-Second Infantry Division, for one year beginning in 
October 2004. He said combat troops had neither the training nor the resources 
to investigate tips before acting on them. "We're not police," he said. "We 
don't go around like detectives and ask questions. We kick down doors, we go in,
we grab people."

First Lieut. Brady Van Engelen, 26, of Washington, DC, said the Army depended on
less than reliable sources because options were limited. He served as a survey 
platoon leader with the First Armored Division in Baghdad's volatile Adhamiya 
district for eight months beginning in September 2003. "That's really about the 
only thing we had," he said. "A lot of it was just going off a whim, a hope that
it worked out," he said. "Maybe one in ten worked out."

Sergeant Bruhns said he uncovered illegal material about 10 percent of the time,
an estimate echoed by other veterans. "We did find small materials for IEDs, 
like maybe a small piece of the wire, the detonating cord," said Sergeant 
Cannon. "We never found real bombs in the houses." In the thousand or so raids 
he conducted during his time in Iraq, Sergeant Westphal said, he came into 
contact with only four "hard-core insurgents."


Even with such slim pretexts for arrest, some soldiers said, any Iraqis arrested
during a raid were treated with extreme suspicion. Several reported seeing 
military-age men detained without evidence or abused during questioning. Eight 
veterans said the men would typically be bound with plastic handcuffs, their 
heads covered with sandbags. While the Army officially banned the practice of 
hooding prisoners after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, five soldiers indicated 
that it continued.

"You weren't allowed to, but it was still done," said Sergeant Cannon. "I 
remember in Mosul [in January 2005], we had guys in a raid and they threw them 
in the back of a Bradley," shackled and hooded. "These guys were really throwing
up," he continued. "They were so sick and nervous. And sometimes, they were 
peeing on themselves. Can you imagine if people could just come into your house 
and take you in front of your family screaming? And if you actually were 
innocent but had no way to prove that? It would be a scary, scary thing." 
Specialist Reppenhagen said he had only a vague idea about what constituted 
contraband during a raid. "Sometimes we didn't even have a translator, so we 
find some poster with Muqtada al-Sadr, Sistani or something, we don't know what 
it says on it. We just apprehend them, document that thing as evidence and send 
it on down the road and let other people deal with it."

Sergeant Bruhns, Sergeant Bocanegra and others said physical abuse of Iraqis 
during raids was common. "It was just soldiers being soldiers," Sergeant 
Bocanegra said. "You give them a lot of, too much, power that they never had 
before, and before you know it they're the ones kicking these guys while they're
handcuffed. And then by you not catching [insurgents], when you do have someone 
say, 'Oh, this is a guy planting a roadside bomb' -- and you don't even know if 
it's him or not -- you just go in there and kick the shit out of him and take 
him in the back of a five-ton -- take him to jail."

Tens of thousands of Iraqis -- military officials estimate more than 60,000 -- 
have been arrested and detained since the beginning of the occupation, leaving 
their families to navigate a complex, chaotic prison system in order to find 
them. Veterans we interviewed said the majority of detainees they encountered 
were either innocent or guilty of only minor infractions.

Sergeant Bocanegra said during the first two months of the war he was instructed
to detain Iraqis based on their attire alone. "They were wearing Arab clothing 
and military-style boots, they were considered enemy combatants and you would 
cuff 'em and take 'em in," he said. "When you put something like that so broad, 
you're bound to have, out of a hundred, you're going to have ten at least that 
were, you know what I mean, innocent."

Sometime during the summer of 2003, Bocanegra said, the rules of engagement 
narrowed -- somewhat. "I remember on some raids, anybody of military age would 
be taken," he said. "Say, for example, we went to some house looking for a 
25-year-old male. We would look at an age group. Anybody from 15 to 30 might be 
a suspect." (Since returning from Iraq, Bocanegra has sought counseling for 
post-traumatic stress disorder and said his "mission" is to encourage others to 
do the same.)

Spc. Richard Murphy, 28, an Army Reservist from Pocono, Pennsylvania, who served
part of his fifteen-month tour with the 800th Military Police Brigade in Abu 
Ghraib prison, said he was often struck by the lack of due process afforded the 
prisoners he guarded.

Specialist Murphy initially went to Iraq in May 2003 to train Iraqi police in 
the southern city of Al Hillah but was transferred to Abu Ghraib in October 2003
when his unit replaced one that was rotating home. (He spoke with The Nation in 
October 2006, while not on active duty.) Shortly after his arrival there, he 
realized that the number of prisoners was growing "exponentially" while the 
amount of personnel remained stagnant. By the end of his six-month stint, 
Specialist Murphy was in charge of 320 prisoners, the majority of whom he was 
convinced were unjustly detained.

"I knew that a large percentage of these prisoners were innocent," he said. 
"Just living with these people for months you get to see their character. Š In 
just listening to the prisoners' stories, I mean, I get the sense that a lot of 
them were just getting rounded up in big groups."

Specialist Murphy said one prisoner, a mentally impaired, blind albino who could
"maybe see a few feet in front of his face" clearly did not belong in Abu 
Ghraib. "I thought to myself, What could he have possibly done?"

Specialist Murphy counted the prisoners twice a day, and the inmates would often
ask him when they would be released or implore him to advocate on their behalf, 
which he would try to do through the JAG (Judge Advocate General) Corps office. 
The JAG officer Specialist Murphy dealt with would respond that it was out of 
his hands. "He would make his recommendations and he'd have to send it up to the
next higher command," Specialist Murphy said. "It was just a snail's crawling 
process. Š The system wasn't working."

Prisoners at the notorious facility rioted on November 24, 2003, to protest 
their living conditions, and Army Reserve Spc. Aidan Delgado, 25, of Sarasota, 
Florida, was there. He had deployed with the 320th Military Police Company to 
Talil Air Base, to serve in Nasiriya and Abu Ghraib for one year beginning in 
April 2003. Unlike the other troops in his unit, he did not respond to the riot.
Four months earlier he had decided to stop carrying a loaded weapon.

Nine prisoners were killed and three wounded after soldiers opened fire during 
the riot, and Specialist Delgado's fellow soldiers returned with photographs of 
the events. The images, disturbingly similar to the incident described by 
Sergeant Mejía, shocked him. "It was very graphic," he said. "A head split open.
One of them was of two soldiers in the back of the truck. They open the body 
bags of these prisoners that were shot in the head and [one soldier has] got an 
MRE spoon. He's reaching in to scoop out some of his brain, looking at the 
camera and he's smiling. And I said, 'These are some of our soldiers desecrating
somebody's body. Something is seriously amiss.' I became convinced that this was
excessive force, and this was brutality."

Spc. Patrick Resta, 29, a National Guardsman from Philadelphia, served in 
Jalula, where there was a small prison camp at his base. He was with the 252nd 
Armor, First Infantry Division, for nine months beginning in March 2004. He 
recalled his supervisor telling his platoon point-blank, "The Geneva Conventions
don't exist at all in Iraq, and that's in writing if you want to see it."

The pivotal experience for Specialist Delgado came when, in the winter of 2003, 
he was assigned to battalion headquarters inside Abu Ghraib prison, where he 
worked with Maj. David DiNenna and Lieut. Col. Jerry Phillabaum, both implicated
in the Taguba Report, the official Army investigation into the prison scandal. 
There, Delgado read reports on prisoners and updated a dry erase board with 
information on where in the large prison compound detainees were moved and held.

"That was when I totally walked away from the Army," Specialist Delgado said. "I
read these rap sheets on all the prisoners in Abu Ghraib and what they were 
there for. I expected them to be terrorists, murderers, insurgents. I look down 
this roster and see petty theft, public drunkenness, forged coalition documents.
These people are here for petty civilian crimes."

"These aren't terrorists," he recalled thinking. "These aren't our enemies. 
They're just ordinary people, and we're treating them this harshly." Specialist 
Delgado ultimately applied for conscientious objector status, which the Army 
approved in April 2004.

The Enemy

American troops in Iraq lacked the training and support to communicate with or 
even understand Iraqi civilians, according to nineteen interviewees. Few spoke 
or read Arabic. They were offered little or no cultural or historical education 
about the country they controlled. Translators were either in short supply or 
unqualified. Any stereotypes about Islam and Arabs that soldiers and marines 
arrived with tended to solidify rapidly in the close confines of the military 
and the risky streets of Iraqi cities into a crude racism.

As Spc. Josh Middleton, 23, of New York City, who served in Baghdad and Mosul 
with the Second Battalion, Eighty-Second Airborne Division, from December 2004 
to March 2005, pointed out, 20-year-old soldiers went from the humiliation of 
training -- "getting yelled at every day if you have a dirty weapon" -- to the 
streets of Iraq, where "it's like life and death. And 40-year-old Iraqi men look
at us with fear and we can -- do you know what I mean? -- we have this power 
that you can't have. That's really liberating. Life is just knocked down to this
primal level."

In Iraq, Specialist Middleton said, "a lot of guys really supported that whole 
concept that, you know, if they don't speak English and they have darker skin, 
they're not as human as us, so we can do what we want."

In the scramble to get ready for Iraq, troops rarely learned more than how to 
say a handful of words in Arabic, depending mostly on a single manual, A Country
Handbook, a Field-Ready Reference Publication, published by the Defense 
Department in September 2002. The book, as described by eight soldiers who 
received it, has pictures of Iraqi military vehicles, diagrams of how the Iraqi 
army is structured, images of Iraqi traffic signals and signs, and about four 
pages of basic Arabic phrases such as Do you speak English? I am an American. I 
am lost.

Iraqi culture, identity and customs were, according to at least a dozen soldiers
and marines interviewed by The Nation, openly ridiculed in racist terms, with 
troops deriding "haji food," "haji music" and "haji homes." In the Muslim world,
the word "haji" denotes someone who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca. But it is 
now used by American troops in the same way "gook" was used in Vietnam or 
"raghead" in Afghanistan.

"You can honestly see how the Iraqis in general or even Arabs in general are 
being, you know, kind of like dehumanized," said Specialist Englehart. "Like it 
was very common for United States soldiers to call them derogatory terms, like 
camel jockeys or Jihad Johnny or, you know, sand nigger."

According to Sergeant Millard and several others interviewed, "It becomes this 
racialized hatred towards Iraqis." And this racist language, as Specialist 
Harmon pointed out, likely played a role in the level of violence directed at 
Iraqi civilians. "By calling them names," he said, "they're not people anymore. 
They're just objects."

Several interviewees emphasized that the military did set up, for training 
purposes, mock Iraqi villages peopled with actors who played the parts of 
civilians and insurgents. But they said that the constant danger in Iraq, and 
the fear it engendered, swiftly overtook such training.

"They were the law," Specialist Harmon said of the soldiers in his unit in 
Al-Rashidiya, near Baghdad, which participated in raids and convoys. "They were 
very mean, very mean-spirited to them. A lot of cursing at them. And I'm like, 
Dude, these people don't understand what you're saying. Š They used to say a 
lot, 'Oh, they'll understand when the gun is in their face.'"

Those few veterans who said they did try to reach out to Iraqis encountered 
fierce hostility from those in their units.

"I had the night shift one night at the aid station," said Specialist Resta, 
recounting one such incident. "We were told from the first second that we 
arrived there, and this was in writing on the wall in our aid station, that we 
were not to treat Iraqi civilians unless they were about to die. Š So these guys
in the guard tower radio in, and they say they've got an Iraqi out there that's 
asking for a doctor.

"So it's really late at night, and I walk out there to the gate and I don't even
see the guy at first, and they point out to him and he's standing there. Well, I
mean he's sitting, leaned up against this concrete barrier -- like the median of
the highway -- we had as you approached the gate. And he's sitting there leaned 
up against it and, uh, he's out there, if you want to go and check on him, he's 
out there. So I'm sitting there waiting for an interpreter, and the interpreter 
comes and I just walk out there in the open. And this guy, he has the shit 
kicked out of him. He was missing two teeth. He has a huge laceration on his 
head, he looked like he had broken his eye orbit and had some kind of injury to 
his knee."

The Iraqi, Specialist Resta said, pleaded with him in broken English for help. 
He told Specialist Resta that there were men near the base who were waiting to 
kill him.

"I open a bag and I'm trying to get bandages out and the guys in the guard tower
are yelling at me, 'Get that fucking haji out of here,'" Specialist Resta said. 
"And I just look back at them and ignored them, and then they were saying, you 
know, 'He doesn't look like he's about to die to me,' 'Tell him to go cry back 
to the fuckin' IP [Iraqi police],' and, you know, a whole bunch of stuff like 
that. So, you know, I'm kind of ignoring them and trying to get the story from 
this guy, and our doctor rolls up in an ambulance and from thirty to forty 
meters away looks out and says, shakes his head and says, 'You know, he looks 
fine, he's gonna be all right,' and walks back to the passenger side of the 
ambulance, you know, kind of like, Get your ass over here and drive me back up 
to the clinic. So I'm standing there, and the whole time both this doctor and 
the guards are yelling at me, you know, to get rid of this guy, and at one point
they're yelling at me, when I'm saying, 'No, let's at least keep this guy here 
overnight, until it's light out,' because they wanted me to send him back out 
into the city, where he told me that people were waiting for him to kill him.

"When I asked if he'd be allowed to stay there, at least until it was light out,
the response was, 'Are you hearing this shit? I think Doc is part fucking 
haji,'" Specialist Resta said.

Specialist Resta gave in to the pressure and denied the man aid. The 
interpreter, he recalled, was furious, telling him that he had effectively 
condemned the man to death.

"So I walk inside the gate and the interpreter helps him up and the guy turns 
around to walk away and the guys in the guard tower go, say, 'Tell him that if 
he comes back tonight he's going to get fucking shot,'" Specialist Resta said. 
"And the interpreter just stared at them and looked at me and then looked back 
at them, and they nod their head, like, Yeah, we mean it. So he yells it to the 
Iraqi and the guy just flinches and turns back over his shoulder, and the 
interpreter says it again and he starts walking away again, you know, crying 
like a little kid. And that was that."


Two dozen soldiers interviewed said that this callousness toward Iraqi civilians
was particularly evident in the operation of supply convoys -- operations in 
which they participated. These convoys are the arteries that sustain the 
oc‹cupation, ferrying items such as water, mail, maintenance parts, sewage, food
and fuel across Iraq. And these strings of tractor-trailers, operated by KBR 
(formerly Kellogg, Brown & Root) and other private contractors, required daily 
protection by the US military. Typically, according to these interviewees, 
supply convoys consisted of twenty to thirty trucks stretching half a mile down 
the road, with a Humvee military escort in front and back and at least one more 
in the center. Soldiers and marines also sometimes accompanied the drivers in 
the cabs of the tractor-trailers.

These convoys, ubiquitous in Iraq, were also, to many Iraqis, sources of wanton 

According to descriptions culled from interviews with thirty-eight veterans who 
rode in convoys -- guarding such runs as Kuwait to Nasiriya, Nasiriya to Baghdad
and Balad to Kirkuk -- when these columns of vehicles left their heavily 
fortified compounds they usually roared down the main supply routes, which often
cut through densely populated areas, reaching speeds over sixty miles an hour. 
Governed by the rule that stagnation increases the likelihood of attack, convoys
leapt meridians in traffic jams, ignored traffic signals, swerved without 
warning onto sidewalks, scattering pedestrians, and slammed into civilian 
vehicles, shoving them off the road. Iraqi civilians, including children, were 
frequently run over and killed. Veterans said they sometimes shot drivers of 
civilian cars that moved into convoy formations or attempted to pass convoys as 
a warning to other drivers to get out of the way.

"A moving target is harder to hit than a stationary one," said Sgt. Ben 
Flanders, 28, a National Guardsman from Concord, New Hampshire, who served in 
Balad with the 172nd Mountain Infantry for eleven months beginning in March 
2004. Flanders ran convoy routes out of Camp Anaconda, about thirty miles north 
of Baghdad. "So speed was your friend. And certainly in terms of IED detonation,
absolutely, speed and spacing were the two things that could really determine 
whether or not you were going to get injured or killed or if they just 
completely missed, which happened."

Following an explosion or ambush, soldiers in the heavily armed escort vehicles 
often fired indiscriminately in a furious effort to suppress further attacks, 
according to three veterans. The rapid bursts from belt-fed .50-caliber machine 
guns and SAWs (Squad Automatic Weapons, which can fire as many as 1,000 rounds 
per minute) left many civilians wounded or dead.

"One example I can give you, you know, we'd be cruising down the road in a 
convoy and all of the sudden, an IED blows up," said Spc. Ben Schrader, 27, of 
Grand Junction, Colorado. He served in Baquba with the 263rd Armor Battalion, 
First Infantry Division, from February 2004 to February 2005. "And, you know, 
you've got these scared kids on these guns, and they just start opening fire. 
And there could be innocent people everywhere. And I've seen this, I mean, on 
numerous occasions where innocent people died because we're cruising down and a 
bomb goes off."

Several veterans said that IEDs, the preferred weapon of the Iraqi insurgency, 
were one of their greatest fears. Since the invasion in March 2003, IEDs have 
been responsible for killing more US troops -- 39.2 percent of the more than 
3,500 killed -- than any other method, according to the Brookings Institution, 
which monitors deaths in Iraq. This past May, IED attacks claimed ninety lives, 
the highest number of fatalities from roadside bombs since the beginning of the 

"The second you left the gate of your base, you were always worried," said 
Sergeant Flatt. "You were constantly watchful for IEDs. And you could never see 
them. I mean, it's just by pure luck who's getting killed and who's not. If 
you've been in firefights earlier that day or that week, you're even more 
stressed and insecure to a point where you're almost trigger-happy."

Sergeant Flatt was among twenty-four veterans who said they had witnessed or 
heard stories from those in their unit of unarmed civilians being shot or run 
over by convoys. These incidents, they said, were so numerous that many were 
never reported.

Sergeant Flatt recalled an incident in January 2005 when a convoy drove past him
on one of the main highways in Mosul. "A car following got too close to their 
convoy," he said. "Basically, they took shots at the car. Warning shots, I don't
know. But they shot the car. Well, one of the bullets happened to just pierce 
the windshield and went straight into the face of this woman in the car. And she
was -- well, as far as I know -- instantly killed. I didn't pull her out of the 
car or anything. Her son was driving the car, and she had her -- she had three 
little girls in the back seat. And they came up to us, because we were actually 
sitting in a defensive position right next to the hospital, the main hospital in
Mosul, the civilian hospital. And they drove up and she was obviously dead. And 
the girls were crying."

On July 30, 2004, Sergeant Flanders was riding in the tail vehicle of a convoy 
on a pitch-black night, traveling from Camp Anaconda south to Taji, just north 
of Baghdad, when his unit was attacked with small-arms fire and RPGs 
(rocket-propelled grenades). He was about to get on the radio to warn the 
vehicle in front of him about the ambush when he saw his gunner unlock the 
turret and swivel it around in the direction of the shooting. He fired his 
MK-19, a 40-millimeter automatic grenade launcher capable of discharging up to 
350 rounds per minute.

"He's just holding the trigger down and it wound up jamming, so he didn't get 
off as many shots maybe as he wanted," Sergeant Flanders recalled. "But I said, 
'How many did you get off?' 'Cause I knew they would be asking that. He said, 
'Twenty-three.' He launched twenty-three grenades. Š

"I remember looking out the window and I saw a little hut, a little Iraqi house 
with a light on. Š We were going so fast and obviously your adrenaline's -- 
you're like tunnel vision, so you can't really see what's going on, you know? 
And it's dark out and all that stuff. I couldn't really see where the grenades 
were exploding, but it had to be exploding around the house or maybe even hit 
the house. Who knows? Who knows? And we were the last vehicle. We can't stop."

Convoys did not slow down or attempt to brake when civilians inadvertently got 
in front of their vehicles, according to the veterans who described them. Sgt. 
Kelly Dougherty, 29, from Cañon City, Colorado, was based at the Talil Air Base 
in Nasiriya with the Colorado National Guard's 220th Military Police Company for
a year beginning in February 2003. She recounted one incident she investigated 
in January 2004 on a six-lane highway south of Nasiriya that resembled numerous 
incidents described by other veterans.

"It's like very barren desert, so most of the people that live there, they're 
nomadic or they live in just little villages and have, like, camels and goats 
and stuff," she recalled. "There was then a little boy -- I would say he was 
about 10 because we didn't see the accident; we responded to it with the 
investigative team -- a little Iraqi boy and he was crossing the highway with 
his, with three donkeys. A military convoy, transportation convoy driving north,
hit him and the donkeys and killed all of them. When we got there, there were 
the dead donkeys and there was a little boy on the side of the road.

"We saw him there and, you know, we were upset because the convoy didn't even 
stop," she said. "They really, judging by the skid marks, they hardly even 
slowed down. But, I mean, that's basically -- basically, your order is that you 
never stop."

Among supply convoys, there were enormous disparities based on the nationality 
of the drivers, according to Sergeant Flanders, who estimated that he ran more 
than 100 convoys in Balad, Baghdad, Falluja and Baquba. When drivers were not 
American, the trucks were often old, slow and prone to breakdowns, he said. The 
convoys operated by Nepalese, Egyptian or Pakistani drivers did not receive the 
same level of security, although the danger was more severe because of the poor 
quality of their vehicles. American drivers were usually placed in convoys about
half the length of those run by foreign nationals and were given superior 
vehicles, body armor and better security. Sergeant Flanders said troops disliked
being assigned to convoys run by foreign nationals, especially since, when the 
aging vehicles broke down, they had to remain and protect them until they could 
be recovered.

"It just seemed insane to run civilians around the country," he added. "I mean, 
Iraq is such a security concern and it's so dangerous and yet we have KBR just 
riding around, unarmed. Š Remember those terrible judgments that we made about 
what Iraq would look like postconflict? I think this is another incarnation of 
that misjudgment, which would be that, Oh, it'll be fine. We'll put a Humvee in 
front, we'll put a Humvee in back, we'll put a Humvee in the middle, and we'll 
just run with it.

"It was just shocking to me. Š I was Army trained and I had a good gunner and I 
had radios and I could call on the radios and I could get an airstrike if I 
wanted to. I could get a Medevac. Š And here these guys are just tooling around.
And these guys are, like, they're promised the world. They're promised $120,000,
tax free, and what kind of people take those jobs? Down-on-their-luck-type 
people, you know? Grandmothers. There were grandmothers there. I escorted a 
grandmother there and she did great. We went through an ambush and one of her 
guys got shot, and she was cool, calm and collected. Wonderful, great, good for 
her. What the hell is she doing there?

"We're using these vulnerable, vulnerable convoys, which probably piss off more 
Iraqis than it actually helps in our relationship with them," Flanders said, 
"just so that we can have comfort and air-conditioning and sodas -- great -- and
PlayStations and camping chairs and greeting cards and stupid T-shirts that say,
Who's Your Baghdaddy?"


Soldiers and marines who participated in neighborhood patrols said they often 
used the same tactics as convoys -- speed, aggressive firing -- to reduce the 
risk of being ambushed or falling victim to IEDs. Sgt. Patrick Campbell, 29, of 
Camarillo, California, who frequently took part in patrols, said his unit fired 
often and without much warning on Iraqi civilians in a desperate bid to ward off

"Every time we got on the highway," he said, "we were firing warning shots, 
causing accidents all the time. Cars screeching to a stop, going into the other 
intersection. Š The problem is, if you slow down at an intersection more than 
once, that's where the next bomb is going to be because you know they watch. You
know? And so if you slow down at the same choke point every time, guaranteed 
there's going to be a bomb there next couple of days. So getting onto a freeway 
or highway is a choke point 'cause you have to wait for traffic to stop. So you 
want to go as fast as you can, and that involves added risk to all the cars 
around you, all the civilian cars.

"The first Iraqi I saw killed was an Iraqi who got too close to our patrol," he 
said. "We were coming up an on-ramp. And he was coming down the highway. And 
they fired warning shots and he just didn't stop. He just merged right into the 
convoy and they opened up on him."

This took place sometime in the spring of 2005 in Khadamiya, in the northwest 
corner of Baghdad, Sergeant Campbell said. His unit fired into the man's car 
with a 240 Bravo, a heavy machine gun. "I heard three gunshots," he said. "We 
get about halfway down the road and Šthe guy in the car got out and he's covered
in blood. And this is where Šthe impulse is just to keep going. There's no way 
that this guy knows who we are. We're just like every other patrol that goes up 
and down this road. I looked at my lieutenant and it wasn't even a discussion. 
We turned around and we went back.

"So I'm treating the guy. He has three gunshot wounds to the chest. Blood 
everywhere. And he keeps going in and out of consciousness. And when he finally 
stops breathing, I have to give him CPR. I take my right hand, I lift up his 
chin and I take my left hand and grab the back of his head to position his head,
and as I take my left hand, my hand actually goes into his cranium. So I'm 
actually holding this man's brain in my hand. And what I realized was I had made
a mistake. I had checked for exit wounds. But what I didn't know was the Humvee 
behind me, after the car failed to stop after the first three rounds, had fired 
twenty, thirty rounds into the car. I never heard it.

"I heard three rounds, I saw three holes, no exit wounds," he said. "I thought I
knew what the situation was. So I didn't even treat this guy's injury to the 
head. Every medic I ever told is always like, Of course, I mean, the guy got 
shot in the head. There's nothing you could have done. And I'm pretty sure -- I 
mean, you can't stop bleeding in the head like that. But this guy, I'm watching 
this guy, who I know we shot because he got too close. His car was clean. There 
was no -- didn't hear it, didn't see us, whatever it was. Dies, you know, dying 
in my arms."

While many veterans said the killing of civilians deeply disturbed them, they 
also said there was no other way to safely operate a patrol.

"You don't want to shoot kids, I mean, no one does," said Sergeant Campbell, as 
he began to describe an incident in the summer of 2005 recounted to him by 
several men in his unit. "But you have this: I remember my unit was coming along
this elevated overpass. And this kid is in the trash pile below, pulls out an 
AK-47 and just decides he's going to start shooting. And you gotta understand 
Šwhen you have spent nine months in a war zone, where no one -- every time 
you've been shot at, you've never seen the person shooting at you, and you could
never shoot back. Here's some guy, some 14-year-old kid with an AK-47, decides 
he's going to start shooting at this convoy. It was the most obscene thing 
you've ever seen. Every person got out and opened fire on this kid. Using the 
biggest weapons we could find, we ripped him to shreds." Sergeant Campbell was 
not present at the incident, which took place in Khadamiya, but he saw 
photographs and heard descriptions from several eyewitnesses in his unit.

"Everyone was so happy, like this release that they finally killed an 
insurgent," he said. "Then when they got there, they realized it was just a 
little kid. And I know that really fucked up a lot of people in the head. Š 
They'd show all the pictures and some people were really happy, like, Oh, look 
what we did. And other people were like, I don't want to see that ever again."

The killing of unarmed Iraqis was so common many of the troops said it became an
accepted part of the daily landscape. "The ground forces were put in that 
position," said First Lieut. Wade Zirkle of Shenandoah County, Virginia, who 
fought in Nasiriya and Falluja with the Second Light Armored Reconnaissance 
Battalion from March to May 2003. "You got a guy trying to kill me but he's 
firing from houses Šwith civilians around him, women and children. You know, 
what do you do? You don't want to risk shooting at him and shooting children at 
the same time. But at the same time, you don't want to die either."

Sergeant Dougherty recounted an incident north of Nasiriya in December 2003, 
when her squad leader shot an Iraqi civilian in the back. The shooting was 
described to her by a woman in her unit who treated the injury. "It was just, 
like, the mentality of my squad leader was like, Oh, we have to kill them over 
here so I don't have to kill them back in Colorado," she said. "He just, like, 
seemed to view every Iraqi as like a potential terrorist."

Several interviewees said that, on occasion, these killings were justified by 
framing innocents as terrorists, typically following incidents when American 
troops fired on crowds of unarmed Iraqis. The troops would detain those who 
survived, accusing them of being insurgents, and plant AK-47s next to the bodies
of those they had killed to make it seem as if the civilian dead were 
combatants. "It would always be an AK because they have so many of these weapons
lying around," said Specialist Aoun. Cavalry scout Joe Hatcher, 26, of San 
Diego, said 9-millimeter handguns and even shovels -- to make it look like the 
noncombatant was digging a hole to plant an IED -- were used as well.

"Every good cop carries a throwaway," said Hatcher, who served with the Fourth 
Cavalry Regiment, First Squadron, in Ad Dawar, halfway between Tikrit and 
Samarra, from February 2004 to March 2005. "If you kill someone and they're 
unarmed, you just drop one on 'em." Those who survived such shootings then found
themselves imprisoned as accused insurgents.

In the winter of 2004, Sergeant Campbell was driving near a particularly 
dangerous road in Abu Gharth, a town west of Baghdad, when he heard gunshots. 
Sergeant Campbell, who served as a medic in Abu Gharth with the 256th Infantry 
Brigade from November 2004 to October 2005, was told that Army snipers had fired
fifty to sixty rounds at two insurgents who'd gotten out of their car to plant 
IEDs. One alleged insurgent was shot in the knees three or four times, treated 
and evacuated on a military helicopter, while the other man, who was treated for
glass shards, was arrested and detained.

"I come to find out later that, while I was treating him, the snipers had 
planted -- after they had searched and found nothing -- they had planted 
bomb-making materials on the guy because they didn't want to be investigated for
the shoot," Sergeant Campbell said. (He showed The Nation a photograph of one 
sniper with a radio in his pocket that he later planted as evidence.) "And to 
this day, I mean, I remember taking that guy to Abu Ghraib prison -- the guy who
didn't get shot -- and just saying 'I'm sorry' because there was not a damn 
thing I could do about it. Š I mean, I guess I have a moral obligation to say 
something, but I would have been kicked out of the unit in a heartbeat. I 
would've been a traitor."


The US military checkpoints dotted across Iraq, according to twenty-six soldiers
and marines who were stationed at them or supplied them -- in locales as diverse
as Tikrit, Baghdad, Karbala, Samarra, Mosul and Kirkuk -- were often deadly for 
civilians. Unarmed Iraqis were mistaken for insurgents, and the rules of 
engagement were blurred. Troops, fearing suicide bombs and rocket-propelled 
grenades, often fired on civilian cars. Nine of those soldiers said they had 
seen civilians being shot at checkpoints. These incidents were so common that 
the military could not investigate each one, some veterans said.

"Most of the time, it's a family," said Sergeant Cannon, who served at half a 
dozen checkpoints in Tikrit. "Every now and then, there is a bomb, you know, 
that's the scary part."

There were some permanent checkpoints stationed across the country, but for 
unsuspecting civilians, "flash checkpoints" were far more dangerous, according 
to eight veterans who were involved in setting them up. These impromptu security
perimeters, thrown up at a moment's notice and quickly dismantled, were 
generally designed to catch insurgents in the act of trafficking weapons or 
explosives, people violating military-imposed curfews or suspects in bombings or
drive-by shootings.

Iraqis had no way of knowing where these so-called "tactical control points" 
would crop up, interviewees said, so many would turn a corner at a high speed 
and became the unwitting targets of jumpy soldiers and marines.

"For me, it was really random," said Lieutenant Van Engelen. "I just picked a 
spot on a map that I thought was a high-volume area that might catch some 
people. We just set something up for half an hour to an hour and then we'd move 
on." There were no briefings before setting up checkpoints, he said.

Temporary checkpoints were safer for troops, according to the veterans, because 
they were less likely to serve as static targets for insurgents. "You do it real
quick because you don't always want to announce your presence," said First Sgt. 
Perry Jefferies, 46, of Waco, Texas, who served with the Fourth Infantry 
Division from April to October 2003.

The temporary checkpoints themselves varied greatly. Lieutenant Van Engelen set 
up checkpoints using orange cones and fifty yards of concertina wire. He would 
assign a soldier to control the flow of traffic and direct drivers through the 
wire, while others searched vehicles, questioned drivers and asked for 
identification. He said signs in English and Arabic warned Iraqis to stop; at 
night, troops used lasers, glow sticks or tracer bullets to signal cars through.
When those weren't available, troops improvised by using flashlights sent them 
by family and friends back home.

"Baghdad is not well lit," said Sergeant Flanders. "There's not street lights 
everywhere. You can't really tell what's going on."

Other troops, however, said they constructed tactical control points that were 
hardly visible to drivers. "We didn't have cones, we didn't have nothing," 
recalled Sergeant Bocanegra, who said he served at more than ten checkpoints in 
Tikrit. "You literally put rocks on the side of the road and tell them to stop. 
And of course some cars are not going to see the rocks. I wouldn't even see the 
rocks myself."

According to Sergeant Flanders, the primary concern when assembling checkpoints 
was protecting the troops serving there. Humvees were positioned so that they 
could quickly drive away if necessary, and the heavy weapons mounted on them 
were placed "in the best possible position" to fire on vehicles that attempted 
to pass through the checkpoint without stopping. And the rules of engagement 
were often improvised, soldiers said.

"We were given a long list of that kind of stuff and, to be honest, a lot of the
time we would look at it and throw it away," said Staff Sgt. James Zuelow, 39, a
National Guardsman from Juneau, Alaska, who served in Baghdad in the Third 
Battalion, 297th Infantry Regiment, for a year beginning in January 2005. "A l

Chris Hedges is the former Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times and 
the author of "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning." Laila Al-Arian is a 
freelance journalist based in New York City.

© 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

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