Opinion: Shoot First, Ask Questions Later? | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 02.04.2003
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Opinion: Shoot First, Ask Questions Later?

Everyday more civilians are killed in the U.S.-led war against Iraq. They are paying the price for the United States to remain the world's only superpower.


Collateral damage

Around 600 civilians have been killed since the war in Iraq began two weeks ago, according to Iraqi reports. Everyday there are more casualties -- "collateral damage" in the bombing of Baghdad and victims of the fear and nervousness of the invading troops. United States soldiers fired at a vehicle that failed to stop at a roadblock near the city of Najaf on Monday, killing seven women and children.

The people who were killed and continue to be killed are the very same people George W. Bush ostensibly wants to free from dictatorship and repression. It would be cynical to presume that the U.S. wantonly harms civilians. Still, the Pentagon and the White House shouldn't have shot their mouths off on so many occasions, playing down the dangers of the war. On the contrary, they should have owned up to the fact that such a war would certainly harm innocent people. They also should have prepared their troops for the eventuality that the road to Baghdad wouldn't be a Sunday stroll.

Learning from Israel?

To be fair, the U.S. wasn't entirely unprepared. Last year, Washington tried to convince the "sheiks" of southern Iraq to defect -- with the aid of millions of dollars to strengthen their case -- to protect the civilians there from war. They also consulted with the Israelis to gather information on dealing with occupied territories and civilians. Apparently, they didn't learn the right lessons.

What happened in Najaf closely resembles numerous incidents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and, before that, in Lebanon. Young soldiers inexperienced in such situations were forced to make split-second decisions: Is the car driving through the checkpoint a threat? Better safe than sorry, they decide again and again. Shoot first, ask questions later.

Such incidents are likely to occur more often the closer the coalition forces get to Baghdad and even more once they reach the capital. The enemy could be waiting on rooftops, in courtyards, in the next taxi -- anywhere.

There's little point in Washington's complaints that civilian casualties are Baghdad's fault because it purportedly threatened the coalition with suicide bombers or because soldiers disguise themselves as civilians or use civilians as human shields. It's true that such behavior is not in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

But if the Baghdad regime deems such tactics useful, it will employ them, just as it repeatedly installed air defense and other military facilities in civilian areas even before the war started. Attacking such targets usually causes civilian casualties that Baghdad then can take advantage of for propaganda purposes.

Memories of Beirut

Since Iraq is and will remain militarily inferior to the United States in every way, it goes without saying that Baghdad will revert to tactics that the U.S. and Britain are unprepared for. The United States may be reminded of October 1983, when Shiite extremists bombed the headquarters of the Marines in Beirut, effectively chasing the Americans out of Lebanon.

But the Beirut scenario won't be repeated in Iraq, seeing as a recall of U.S. troops would be tantamount to declaring defeat, something the White House aims to avoid at any price. That price though -- to remain the world's only superpower -- will continue to be paid by Iraqi civilians. However, the more that civilians are injured or killed, the more difficult it will be for the U.S. to maintain its hard-nosed stance.

Peter Philipp is Deutsche Welle's chief correspondent.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article reflect the opinions of the author alone and not those of DW-WORLD or Deutsche Welle.