Setbacks in winning Iraqi hearts

By Friday, the US Army will establish a central point for compensation claims.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The night after Baghdad fell, three Bradley Fighting Vehicles, fresh from battle, came across some Iraqi military trucks loaded with ordnance in residential District 405.

What happened next would become a tragedy for both the American soldiers and the Iraqi civilians.

After warning the residents along Street No. 2 to stay in their homes, the lead US vehicle fired explosive rounds into the parked trucks. The resulting fireball destroyed four houses, broke windows up to six blocks away - and killed the Bradley commander.

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As US troops attempt to restore safety and order to Baghdad, events like these are complicating the postwar campaign to win Iraqi hearts and minds. The incidents also raise the issue of who should pay for the unintentional mistakes of war.

Damaged beyond repair is District 405 resident Abdulkarim Al-Fardousi's faith that Americans had come to free his people from dictatorship and make a better future for Iraq.

"The happiness at the fall of Saddam has faded away in that single incident," says Fardousi, owner of an advertising agency, as he picks through mangled wreckage that included four computers and six monitors - brought home from work for safety during the war.

"If this is freedom, I don't want it," Fardousi says. The blast knocked out hearing in his right ear, but the 27 other family members crammed into the back of the house survived that night, April 10. In the block, eight people were lightly wounded.

"Who is going to compensate for all this loss?" Fardousi asks. "This was an American mistake - they told us that."

US officers on the streets of Baghdad recognize the dilemma, and say they understand that how they cope with compensation claims and other grievances could determine success or failure in Iraq.

While the April 10 incident involved a munitions miscalculation, other problems appear to result from the difficulty of judging threats in a country where loyalties are still uncertain.

At least 12 people were reported killed and others hurt during a public address by the new pro-American governor in the northern city of Mosul Tuesday. A US military spokesman said US troops protecting the city's government building had come under fire from gunmen in the crowd and shot back with "accurate fire." But some witnesses claimed the US troops lost their cool and began firing into the crowd which, increasingly hostile to the governor, began to riot.

At security checkpoints, US troops are particularly jumpy, after a string of fatal suicide bombings.

On April 1, American soldiers shot dead seven women and children when their car failed to stop at a checkpoint near Najaf. Three days later, seven Iraqis, including three children, died when marines opened fire on two vehicles south of Baghdad.

At the Adhimiya Palace checkpoint in Baghdad a week ago, Western journalists witnessed the death or wounding of civilians - including a six-year-old girl. "I can't account for what these particular soldiers knew at the time, and that is our standard," says Capt. Austin Goodrich, the Army's 3rd Brigade legal adviser. "If they are taking gunfire, then that is what they know."

The key is "how to transition from combat to supportive operations," Captain Goodrich says. Regarding the shootings at the Adhimiya checkpoint - in which in one two-hour period at least five Iraqis died, and four were wounded, as the American unit came under fire from the neighborhood - he said: "We're just trying to make sure that all soldiers are tracking the rules of engagement."

Uniformed US legal advisers say the Army's Third Division, deployed west of the Tigris in Baghdad, will establish a central military-civilian point by Friday, along with three branches. Iraqis with complaints and compensation claims, like the newly homeless residents of District No. 405, should be able to begin claims there within a week, says Capt. Goodrich.

The question of whether compensation would be paid, he says, would be viewed through the "perspective of the soldier," and the information troops had at the time.

On April 10, the Bradley unit was "way too confident" and shot at its target from just 75 yards away with a high-explosive round, says an Army officer familiar with the event. They had just been involved in fighting for the takeover of Baghdad and had radioed their suspicion that the Iraqi vehicles were booby-trapped.

"It was not anything ugly Americanish," says the officer, who expected that the Iraqis would receive compensation, as have civilian victims of wartime errors in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. "It was a very unfortunate mistake.... That's the honest truth."

Armored troops Wednesday held a memorial service for Staff Sgt Terry Hemingway, the Bradley commander who died in the incident. The Pentagon casualty report said simply that Sgt. Hemingway was killed "traveling down a street when a car exploded next to it."

Fellow members of Sgt. Hemingway's unit declined to be interviewed.

The checkpoint incidents and the District 405 incident have caused US commanders to become more attentive to civilians, military officials say.

But some observers worry that American mistakes will be interpreted by Iraqis as evidence of a cavalier attitude.

"They see occupation, lack of security, mobs looting, and carelessness from the American side," says Saad Naji Jawad, a political scientist at Baghdad University. "Nobody is giving a damn about the dire needs of the Iraqi people."

Only two things appear to have survived intact at Abdulkarim Fardousi's home: a single white rose with pink-tinted petals that gamely sticks up through the front-yard rubble, and two personal photographs of an American soldier, retrieved by the Iraqis from a shredded green US Army backpack.

"It's terrible that a soldier lost his life...When American tanks passed by, the children waved and welcomed them, but now when they pass, no one likes their presence," says Fardousi's neighbor Zahid Jihad, a retired railway draughtsman whose house is today a blackened shell.

Jihad says he was tortured by Mr. Hussein's brutal regime in the 1980s, and rolls his trousers partly down his buttocks to show where he was burnt repeatedly with a soldering iron. The events of April 10, he says, show that peace is still far away.

"Now we are victims of both sides - of Saddam, and of the Americans coming in," Mr. Jihad says. American investigators visited the day after, and asked questions for hours. "They said they were sorry, so sorry, and they never came back," says Jihad. "Is sorry enough?"

Many US civil affairs troops in Baghdad say that their contacts with Iraqis have been positive.

"The people we see are happy we are there - they see the progress, they are starting to express hope," says Capt. Jeff Maglio, a civil-military operations officer attached to the US Army's 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division.

He says he has built up personal contacts over the past six days, and that, after US troops helped fix broken parts at a water plant, the manager "almost cried" when they departed Wednesday.

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