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Army looting iraqi civilians { May 31 2004 }

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May 31, 2004
Army Is Investigating Reports of Assaults and Thefts by G.I.'s Against Iraqi Civilians

WASHINGTON, May 30 -- The Army is investigating at least two dozen cases in which American soldiers are accused of assaulting civilian Iraqis or stealing their money, jewelry and other property during raids, patrols and house-to-house searches, senior Defense Department officials said Sunday.

In some instances, investigators say, soldiers were reported to have stolen cash from Iraqis they stopped at roadside checkpoints, apparently under the pretext of confiscating money from suspected insurgents or their financial backers.

The Army's Criminal Investigation Command is also examining at least six cases in which soldiers on missions reportedly kicked, punched or beat civilian Iraqis, or fired their weapons near the Iraqis to scare or intimidate them.

Those statistics and broad descriptions are included in an internal summary prepared earlier this month by the investigation command at the request of senior Army officials who are struggling to understand the scope of mistreatment and potential crimes committed by American soldiers in Iraq beyond the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and other Army-run detention sites.

While military officials here and in Iraq say the reports of thievery and lawlessness are isolated cases among more than 135,000 American troops, other military officials say the official numbers probably underestimate the actual offenses because most Iraqis are too frightened to file a formal complaint with the American authorities.

The Army has acknowledged it is investigating 37 deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan involving prisoners in American custody. Other confidential Army documents have chronicled a widespread pattern of abuse involving prisoners in American custody in Iraq and Afghanistan that implicates more military units than previously known.

But this new summary of previously undisclosed reported abuses, a description of which was provided by a senior Defense official, widens the scope of potential wrongdoing beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib and other prisons, to the daily operations of American forces in Iraq.

"We want to be viewed as liberators and as examples of a professional army working for the good of people," said the Defense official. "To have a soldier act criminally certainly can damage that reputation. For your average Iraqi, the question becomes, what's the difference between what Saddam Hussein's forces did and what these soldiers did?"

The summary lists categories of offenses under review -- 18 theft and 6 assault cases in Iraq as of May 21 -- but it does not describe details of each incident, which units were involved, whether each case is pending or closed, or what, if any, disciplinary action was taken.

The incidents were reported to have taken place in the past 15 months and were reported by Iraqis and, in a few cases, by American soldiers. Military officials said it was difficult to compare those figures with other areas where American troops are operating, including Afghanistan, where the United States has only 10,000 troops, and is conducting far fewer house-to-house searches and roadside checkpoints than in Iraq.

A spokesman for the investigation command did not respond to several phone calls and e-mail messages over the weekend.

Senior military officials have reluctantly acknowledged that small numbers of an American force in Iraq that they characterize as well trained and highly disciplined have committed assaults, thefts and other abuses against civilian Iraqis, outside of detention sites, since American troops invaded Iraq in March 2003. "There have been, sadly, cases where soldiers have operated outside established, trained rules of engagement and rules for the use of force -- a very, very small number in a force of over 150,000," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the military's chief spokesman in Iraq, told reporters on March 22. "While each of those cases is nothing to take great pride in, the fact is that 99-plus percent of the soldiers are operating well within those rules of engagement, under very tough conditions, showing remarkable restraint, day after day, operating inside this country," General Kimmitt added.

One Defense official cautioned Friday that the summary figures for reported thefts and assaults against Iraqis outside detention sites are just the beginning. The official said several Iraqis and some soldiers have come forward since the summary was prepared to make more reports of abuses, emboldened by the highly publicized Abu Ghraib cases.

Human rights advocates have complained for months that American forces had committed abuses on or near the battlefield throughout the 15-month conflict and insurgency in Iraq. A report by the International Committee of the Red Cross that was submitted to the military high command in Baghdad in February concluded that American and other allied forces had carried out "brutal behavior" during arrests of suspected insurgents that "appeared to go beyond the reasonable, legitimate and proportional use of force required to apprehend suspects or restrain persons resisting arrest or capture."

During raids, the report said, the treatment of Iraqis by the American forces "often included pushing people around, insulting, taking aim with rifles, punching and kicking and striking with rifles."

In one case, the Red Cross reported that on Sept. 13, 2003, allied forces arrested nine Iraqi men in a hotel in Basra. The men were forced to kneel, with their hands and faces against the ground. The soldiers then stamped on the backs of the necks of those prisoners who raised their heads. The soldiers confiscated their money without issuing receipts, Red Cross inspectors said. The report did not make clear whether the soldiers were American, other allied soldiers or a combination.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 19, Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top commander of American forces in the Middle East, sounded a dismissive note about at least some of the Red Cross findings, suggesting that the organization had little understanding of the confusing and deadly circumstances swirling on the battlefield.

"I am aware that the International Red Cross has its view on things," General Abizaid said. "A lot of its view is based upon what happens at the point of detention, where soldiers fighting for their lives detain people, which is a very brutal and bloody event."

Other senior military officials in Washington said the new summary of potential abuses by American soldiers involved Iraqis who were either in American custody on the battlefield or, more likely, had "run-ins" with United States forces in their homes or on the road.

"These are either people who are under U.S. control or they're just Iraqis caught up in the conflict or at checkpoints," said a senior Army official.

Abdullah Khalil, who worked as an Arabic-speaking translator last spring for units from the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade in and around Balad, Iraq, said in an interview that many Iraqi civilians complained to him about strong-arm tactics or shakedowns by American soldiers. But Mr. Khalil said many Iraqis said they were too frightened of the soldiers to report the abuses.

As the Army's primary criminal investigative organization, the Criminal Investigation Command, often called the C.I.D., is responsible for conducting criminal investigations in which Army personnel are or may be involved. The command is headed by Maj. Gen. Donald J. Ryder, the Army's provost marshal or senior law enforcement official, who conducted a review of prisons in Iraq last summer and fall at the request of the ground commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez.

With headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Va., the investigation command has sent scores of agents and support personnel to Iraq to examine cases ranging from homicide to fraud. The agents have been attached to military police units, and conduct their investigations independently of commanders in the field. The commanders receive the agents' reports, and mete out disciplinary action or initiate criminal charges based on that information and subsequent inquiries.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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