Innocence on Both Sides

How coalition soldiers can avoid civilian losses

With the Iraqi regime mingling its forces among civilians, using fake surrenders, and hiding suicide-attackers in noncombatant clothes, US and British forces must use extra caution to avoid harming the innocent.

The US military's rules of engagement designed to prevent civilian losses are being severely tested, and already have been sightly adjusted to the new dangers. These rules require a high level of battlefield judgment and vigilance, quick thinking, and a superhuman control over panic and fear.

The loss of even one Iraqi civilian is tragic, and efforts to avoid such a loss in a time of war require supreme patience and compassion in the professional, volunteer soldiers who are otherwise trained to kill.

To spare the innocent, US soldiers must remain innocent themselves by obeying the rules of engagement. And the US military must not flinch in punishing soldiers who disobey them.

This is essential not only to winning the war; Arab anti-US opinion has grown stronger with the relatively few incidents of civilian losses so far, and could add pressure on the US - but it is also essential to winning the peace in an occupied Iraq. Even if the war takes longer in order to avoid civilian casualties, that will help win the cooperation of many Iraqis in restoring their country.

Mr. Hussein's use of civilians in this war has made plain his disregard for his own people. The US and Britain must set an opposite, higher standard for warfare, by making operational tradeoffs. (American and British medical treatment of wounded Iraqi civilians is also helping the coalition's cause.)

The difficulty of distinguishing between civilians and soldiers will be most acute if there's to be door-to-door combat in Baghdad. It may be easy for soldiers to say that civilian casualties are inevitable, especially if they believe their own lives are at stake. And they may just blame Hussein for creating such situations as they fire indiscriminately in urban battles. They should avoid such attitudes.

With so much of world opinion against this war, it will be difficult for US or British soldiers to avoid blame for civilian deaths and win the moral argument, even if Saddam Hussein's tactics cause more of the losses than do coalition mistakes.

US officials must also show more sincere public regret over civilian losses - and avoid statements that appear to justify them or merely throw blame back on Hussein when the facts are not yet clear.

This war can be won even using extreme care to avoid civilian deaths. So far, compared to previous wars, the US and Britain seem to be doing that.

Outfoxing Hussein's use of civilian shields won't be easy. British soldiers, in trying to take over the city of Basra, are using techniques well-honed in Northern Ireland to keep casualties to a minimum. Let's hope the US can use them in Baghdad as well.

How this war is won is as important as winning it.

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