Tensions over U.S. killings of civilians in Iraq received another jolt with reports that American forces killed 17 civilians and wounded several dozen others, including old people and children, in Baghdad’s impoverished Sadr City neighborhood Oct. 21.
The U.S. military said it had called in air strikes on the densely populated neighborhood, claiming its ground forces were fired on as they conducted a raid for a person reported to be a leader of a kidnapping ring.
Sadr City’s mayor, Hassan Adhab, told Iraqi state TV the dead included a mother and her three children, CNN reported. Adhab blamed American forces for targeting cars carrying people going to work in the early morning. He described a bloody scene, saying dozens of sheep were killed in the melee, and said military aircraft continued to hover over the neighborhood hours after the raid.
One of the dead was an elderly woman who had been nearly cut in half by shrapnel, a local hospital official told reporters. Among the wounded were two cousins, ages 8 and 11, who had been buying bread for their families, The New York Times reported.
U.S. officials first said they were “unaware of any innocent civilians being killed” in the raid, which they claimed left 49 “criminals” dead. But later a joint U.S.-Iraqi investigation was announced.
The incident underscored how, despite the Bush administration’s verbiage about the U.S. “standing down” as Iraqi forces “stand up,” the U.S. military continues to literally “call the shots” in Iraq, including bringing in airpower to blast crowded residential areas.
In a meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki expressed outrage over the killings and over the wider issue of excessive force used by U.S. occupation forces, including private security contractors, news reports said.
Reverberations continue from the Sept. 16 Baghdad shooting spree by Blackwater USA security guards that left 17 civilians dead, and other incidents this month in which private security contractors unleashed barrages of gunfire in busy streets, killing innocent civilians.
An Iraqi political leader and leading member of the Iraqi Communist Party told the World that, while the Iraqi people want to get rid of terrorists, kidnappers and criminal gangs, they reject the excessive and indiscriminate use of force by the U.S. occupiers. “It can’t continue like this,” he said, speaking by phone from Baghdad. He asked not to be quoted by name because of his role in sensitive political developments there.
Iraqis want Iraqis in charge, not foreign forces, he said.
A new law is being presented to the Iraqi Parliament that would put foreign security companies like Blackwater under Iraqi law, subject to Iraqi penalties and expulsion from the country if they commit crimes against civilians, the Iraqi Communist leader said. The law would overturn Order 17 issued by U.S. occupation czar Paul Bremer two days before he left Iraq in 2004, which gave all U.S. occupation employees, including private contractors, total immunity from Iraqi laws.
But a more fundamental issue related to ending the occupation, the Iraqi leader said, is the widespread Iraqi anger that the U.S. is not fulfilling its responsibility to train and equip the Iraqi army and police, and as a result is keeping the U.S. in the driver’s seat.
As if to confirm these Iraqi charges, a U.S. government audit released last week says that the company hired by the State Department to the tune of $1.2 billion to train Iraqi police officers cannot document exactly what it has been accomplishing for the past three years.
Records relating to DynCorp, the State Department’s largest contractor in Iraq, are in such disarray that the government cannot say “specifically what it received” for most of the $1.2 billion it has paid the company since 2004 for work in Iraq, according to a New York Times report on the audit.
Stuart Bowen, the congressionally-mandated special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, who conducted the audit, told the Times the police training contract “appears to me to be the weakest-staffed, most poorly overseen large-scale program in Iraq.”
DynCorp was supposed to build police training facilities and provide hundreds of police trainers to instruct a new Iraqi police force.
Iraqis consider developing a trained and skilled police force critical to stabilizing their country and ending the U.S. occupation, the Iraqi leader told the World.
At the same time, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who chairs the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has charged that Blackwater appears to have defrauded the U.S. government of millions of dollars in taxes by illegally calling its employees “independent contractors.” Blackwater CEO Eric Prince has close ties to the Republican right.
Meanwhile, President Bush last week asked Congress to okay another $196 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the bulk of it for Iraq.
Anita Dancs, research director for the National Priorities Project, said this would bring the Iraq war total since 2003 to $611 billion — “about $5,500 per U.S. household.”
“If Congress passes this request,” she said, “we will be spending on the Iraq war this year enough to provide health care coverage for all uninsured Americans.”