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US troop scandals: Is Iraq different?

A military tribunal this week is hearing charges that troops killed an Iraqi family in March.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 8, 2006

In Baghdad this week, a military tribunal is deciding whether five American soldiers must stand trial for the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl and the killing of her parents and sister in March.

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The alleged events, which are among several atrocities tied to US forces now in their fourth year of fighting insurgents in Iraq, raise important questions for military officials: How do the numbers and types of incidents compare with earlier wars? Is there something about this conflict that makes such incidents more likely? Could they have been anticipated and prevented?

It's hard to compare Iraq with previous wars because the fighting and the reasons for fighting are different as are the numbers and deployment of troops. But observers generally agree that charges involving mistreatment of civilians or enemy combatants are not disproportionate compared with World War II, the Vietnam war, or other wars.

"You could probably construct an empiri-cal case that US forces are exhibiting more restraint in their treatment of Iraqi civilians than has ever been seen in past wars of similar scale and duration," says military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va, in an e-mail. "Almost all of the atrocities that have been alleged involve small units deliberately disobeying rules of engagement and the orders of senior officers."

"It is worth bearing in mind that the US routinely killed thousands of enemy civilians in bombing raids during World War II, and that the number of civilians murdered at My Lai, the worst atrocity committed by US forces in Vietnam, was over 300," adds Dr. Thompson. "The pattern of atrocities committed against civilians in past counterinsurgency campaigns is quite imposing, from the British Army in the Boer War to the US Army in the Filipino Insurrection to the Russian Army in Chechnya."

For example, the Los Angeles Times published over the weekend details of a 9,000-page once-secret archive, assembled by a Pentagon task force in the early 1970s, showing that "confirmed atrocities by US forces in Vietnam were more extensive than was previously known."

Similarly, it's likely to be years before the full extent of such events in the Iraq war is known.

Beyond this week's military hearing in Baghdad, investigators are looking into:

•An episode involving US marines and 24 civilians killed at Haditha in November. It's expected to result in official charges involving failure by some officers to report the event as well as the deaths of the Iraqis.

•Charges against six marines for assaulting civilians in order to extract intelligence. Among the six are three charged with killing an Iraqi man, then placing an AK-47 rifle next to his body to make it look as if he was an insurgent.

•Allegations that an Army brigade commander in Tikrit ordered his troops to "kill all military-aged males."

What's different, compared with World War II – at least for American soldiers in the field – is the incessant nature of the threat of personal attack from roadside bombs or snipers.