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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 / April 17, 2003



BAGHDAD, IRAQ

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.

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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.

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."

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