by Elaine M. Grossman
March 11, 2005

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U.S. Commander in Iraq Weighing Changes to Checkpoint Procedures

March 11, 2005 The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. George Casey, is considering new checkpoint procedures following two incidents last week in which foreigners were fatally shot, according to a top officer in the region.

Casey's command, known as Multinational Forces Iraq, is “looking at other ways to handle [checkpoints] without putting our soldiers at undue risk,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, told in an e-mail response to questions.

At the same time, Casey is reviewing whether U.S. soldiers followed “established rules to identify the threat and take care of it,” Smith said. On March 4, troops with the 3rd Infantry Division fired on a car carrying Italian journalist Guiliana Sgrena — just released from a month in captivity — as it approached a roadblock en route to the Baghdad airport. An Italian intelligence officer was killed and Sgrena was injured. The same day, a Bulgarian soldier was killed as his patrol neared a U.S. Army post outside Diwaniya.

“We've had two incidents in a short period of time, and so it's prudent for us to go back and say, 'Hey, wait a minute. Let's look at this and see if we can do something better,” Casey said at a March 8 Pentagon briefing.

Media reports describe almost daily incidents in which Iraqi civilians, apparently unconnected to the insurgency, have been wounded or killed in shootings at U.S. military checkpoints. Officers say many infantry are on hair-trigger footing in Iraq because of the frequency of car bomb attacks.

Calling the episode involving Sgrena “a tragic accident,” Smith added, “It is worth remembering that the most dangerous threat to our troops at checkpoints is the VBIED” — military jargon for a car bomb, or “vehicle-borne improvised explosive device.”

Though U.S. officials have not made public the rules of engagement for troops manning checkpoints, anecdotal reports suggest soldiers typically use placards in Arabic and English, flashing lights and arm signals to stop cars. If a vehicle looks suspicious or unlikely to slow down, warning shots may be fired before soldiers take aim at the engine block, officials say.

But warning signs or hand signals may be mistakenly ignored or misunderstood, especially after dark or in bad weather, some officers say.

“Our hand and arm signals mean very little over there,” said one military officer who has served in Iraq. If initial warnings fail, the risk of a serious error might increase rapidly, this officer added.
Before going to Iraq, “I was taught that shooting warning shots was very dangerous, and shooting at tires was very dangerous,” the officer said.

In many cases, drivers approaching checkpoints may not even be aware of warning shots, according to another veteran officer. The sound of rifle fire can be very difficult to hear on the receiving end, often making warning shots against moving vehicles ineffective, the officer said.

In the wake of the high-profile incidents, there are already increasing calls to employ more non-lethal devices to disable suspicious cars. Simple off-the-shelf technologies — some already in use by civilian police and tested by the U.S. military — include tire spikes, nylon netting that disables tires and axles, bright lights to temporarily blind drivers, and slippery spray to incapacitate steering.

An independent task force convened by the Council on Foreign Relations concluded last year that such devices could minimize or prevent incidents in which innocent civilians or friendly forces are harmed in Iraq.

—Elaine M. Grossman

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