Checkpoints and Balances

As soon as news broke on March 4 about U.S. troops firing on reporter Giuliana Sgrena's Baghdad airport-bound car and killing Italian intelligence officer Nicola Calipari in the process, the clash of accounts began almost immediately. The Americans put the blame squarely on the Italians for driving too fast and not heeding supposed warnings; Sgrena and the surviving Italian intelligence officials, however, said the car was going at a reasonable speed, and that no warnings were given. The Americans claim it was an honest mistake stemming from checkpoint rules of engagement; the Italian Communist Party cast it as part of a dark plot to stop a reporter who knew too much. And so on and so forth.

The day after Calipari's death, I spoke with a veteran CIA officer who had participated in operations similar to Calipari's. The whole affair, he ruefully said, reminded him of similar incidents from a bygone era. Speaking on condition that neither he nor the country he operated out of be named, he recalled that at one particular duty station (a place noticeably beset by sectarian strife), it wasn't uncommon for Western citizens to end up as captives of insurgents. Oftentimes foreign intelligence services would endeavor to secure their citizens' releases. Sometimes, he said, those services would ask the Americans for help; other times, they would mount their operations entirely on their own, or only with another country's intelligence service, keeping their endeavors secret from the United States.

In general, he went on, there were more happy endings than not. But sometimes things took tragic turns. Sometimes, he said, even though an intelligence team had successfully secured its citizen from the hands of one insurgent band, on the way out it would run into one of the many other insurgent factions in the country -- in some cases one that the United States had relationships with. "Had we known what was going on," he said, "we would have been able to ensure safe passage, which was something we did in other cases where we knew what was going on."

The veteran CIA officer says he sees shades of this in the Sgrena case, except that instead of insurgents, it was allies who opened fire on the spies. The sad irony was that the Italians' good tradecraft in securing Sgrena was probably what got their car shot up by U.S. forces.

"You can't blame a secret service for wanting to operate secretly, especially in these circumstances," the CIA officer sighed. "I'd be willing to bet the Italians didn't say anything to anyone about this operation, and who can blame them? The U.S. isn't going to be enthusiastic about another country negotiating with terrorists and paying ransom, especially over a communist journalist. It's possible that at the last minute, Calipari's team -- or someone they talked to -- might have told the Americans what was going on, and the usual checkpoints were notified that they were coming, and to wave them through. But I'd also be willing to bet that the 'checkpoint' that shot them wasn't really a checkpoint, but some makeshift thing that was part of a sweep of insurgents, or some VIP's security detail.”

According to a U.S. military source quoted in Monday's Washington Post, this appears to have been along the lines of what happened. But as of Tuesday morning, more details weren't necessarily leading to greater clarity: While The Washington Times cited a leaked Pentagon memo saying that Calipari had failed to liaise with Americans, Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini asserted that Calipari had in fact ''made all the necessary contacts with the U.S. authorities,'' and essentially said that the U.S. account of a speeding car and soldiers endeavoring to warn the car didn't hold water. (CNN, meanwhile, was reporting that the fatal checkpoint was in fact an ad hoc affair, set up on account of U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte's movements.)

Unfortunately, none of this matters to those who are already gleefully waving the bloody shirt: Some pro-occupation forces are all but calling Sgrena a liar on account of her past writings, her being a communist, and her conflicting accounts of the shooting; some anti-occupation forces, meanwhile, are uncritically venerating Sgrena and her accounts and theories, exalting the certainty of American nefariousness. But perhaps most useful in determining what actually happened (as well as what it reflects about the reality of Iraq) is examining the Sgrena case in the context of similar incidents involving Iraqi noncombatants -- incidents whose numbers run to the thousands, and have cost the U.S. government nearly $10 million in compensation claims.

On October 24, 2004, the Dayton Daily News published a detailed but neglected investigation of both the content and management of claims filed with the U.S. military by Iraqi civilians under the Foreign Claims Act, the only official way for Iraqis who have lost property or loved ones at the hands of U.S. forces to get financial recompense. (Provided, that is, that death or destruction occurred outside of combat: While the act covers instances of excessive or wrongful force against property or persons, it only does so in the case of "non-combat" operations -- and, unfortunately for many claimants, any number of daily U.S. endeavors in Iraq are considered combat. U.S. military units do, however, have authority to disburse "condolence payments" -- which, conveniently, are not expressions of responsibility -- for death or damage incurred in "combat" situations.)

While the Daily News didn't review all of the roughly 15,000 Iraqi claims filed as of October 2004, of the 4,611 it did examine, 905 involved the wounding or death of Iraqi citizens; of those, 39 were shootings that left 12 dead and 28 injured at security stops. In light of the Sgrena case, it's perhaps worth revisiting sections of the Daily News story that fall under the subhead "Checkpoints: Clash of Cultures":

If there is a place that most exemplifies the problems plaguing the American-led occupation, it is the traffic-control checkpoints. Often little more than a group of Humvees in the middle of a road, checkpoints are used to secure an area or conduct spot searches of cars . … [Ivan] Medina, [a] former assistant Army chaplain in Iraq, said many checkpoints were poorly marked and manned by soldiers who didn't understand the culture or have translators who could help them communicate with Iraqi citizens.

“‘Our soldiers would put their hands up as a sign to stop at the [checkpoints], but we didn't do our homework on how to deal with the Iraqi people,' he said. ‘To them, putting your hand up was a gesture or greeting, so they would just keep approaching the soldiers in their cars. And a lot of soldiers would just open fire, and they killed a lot of innocent people. We just didn't do enough to study the culture of Iraqis.'

Medina, whose twin brother was killed in Iraq last November, said soldiers sometimes were ordered to open fire on any vehicle that didn't stop. "In one case there was a father, mother and three children," said Medina, whose unit arrived shortly after the shooting. "They were shot many times. The car was full of blood. There was one kid alive. He was alive for a few hours before being pronounced dead … ."

Similar examples can be found elsewhere in the story, as well as in a small handful of reports in the back pages of other papers like Newsday and the Los Angeles Times over the last 18 months. Among the more recent was a December 5, 2004, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette report about two errant -- but deemed officially justified -- checkpoint shootings on September 30, 2004, which left three civilian Iraqis dead and four wounded. Characterizing the incidents as the result of "a deadly combination -- the language barrier and a day filled with car bombings," in both cases, cars with unarmed civilians were fired upon with no verbal or nonlethal warnings beforehand:

Spc. Jason Cole was manning a .50-caliber machine gun in the turret of his Humvee Sept 30. He heard the gunner behind him open fire on the red Opel, wounding the two men and boy. Moments later he faced a car speeding toward his end of the roadblock.

He opened fire, shooting the ground in front of the vehicle. Then he shot the engine and then the windshield.

Three of the four people in the car died at the scene.

The latest account of trigger-happy U.S. troops is in the March 7 Army Times, under the headline "Cash Not A Cure-All For Iraqis Hit By War." In one case, when a car outside Balad Ruz with two Iraqis didn't get out of a Humvee's way fast enough, a soldier in the Humvee opened fire on the car, killing the driver and wounding the passenger, schoolteacher Bassim Abid Azul, in the abdomen. (Abid Azul asked for $12,000 in compensation, but only got $2,000.) In another case, when Iraqi engineer Mahmoud Lateif Mohammed tried to pass a U.S. Army convoy earlier this year, a soldier opened fire on him for no discernible reason, riddling his car with bullets and blowing two fingers off of his left hand. Asking for $15,000, "he begrudgingly walked out with $3,400," venting to the paper that "[t]hey shoot me, then they leave. They didn't take me to the hospital."

While Sgrena and others have been floating the theory that she might have been the victim of an ambush, as thousands of claims and $8.2 million paid out in compensation as of last fall makes clear, instances of "shoot or destroy first, ask questions later" that end with civilian casualties are hardly uncommon in Iraq. And while the Italians may or may not file claims of their own, the U.S. goverment certainly expects to keep paying compensation for incidents like the one on the airport road: $10 million dollars has been budgeted for paying out future claims in 2005 alone.

"I understand how everyone wants to focus on what exactly happened to the Italians," the CIA officer I spoke with said. "But I hope that people don't forget the bigger picture here. The question here shouldn't just be, what happened to the Italians? It should also be, why, coming up on two years after liberating Iraq, isn't the road to the capital's airport secure? And is accidentally shooting people and other stuff to the tune of millions of dollars helping or hurting security there?"

Jason Vest is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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