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It takes a heap of licks to strike a nail in the dark.

From Michael Schwartz at Mother Jones to Body and Soul to me to you:

Here is the Times account of what happened in the small town of Baiji, 150 miles north of Baghdad, on January 3, based on interviews with various unidentified “American officials”:

A pilotless reconnaissance aircraft detected three men planting a roadside bomb about 9 p.m. The men “dug a hole following the common pattern of roadside bomb emplacement,” the military said in a statement. “The individuals were assessed as posing a threat to Iraqi civilians and coalition forces, and the location of the three men was relayed to close air support pilots.”

The men were tracked from the road site to a building nearby, which was then bombed with “precision guided munitions,” the military said. The statement did not say whether a roadside bomb was later found at the site. An additional military statement said Navy F-14’s had “strafed the target with 100 cannon rounds” and dropped one bomb.

Crucial to this report is the phrase “precision guided munitions,” an affirmation that US forces used technology less likely than older munitions to accidentally hit the wrong target. It is this precision that allows us to glimpse the callous brutality of American military strategy in Iraq.

The target was a “building nearby,” identified by a drone aircraft as an enemy hiding place. According to eyewitness reports given to the Washington Post, the attack effectively demolished the building, and damaged six surrounding buildings. While in a perfect world, the surrounding buildings would have been unharmed, the reported amount of human damage in them (two people injured) suggests that, in this case at least, the claims of “precision” were at least fairly accurate.

The problem arises with what happened inside the targeted building, a house inhabited by a large Iraqi family. Piecing together the testimony of local residents, the Times reporter concluded that fourteen members of the family were in the house at the time of the attack and nine were killed. The Washington Post, which reported twelve killed, offered a chilling description of the scene:

“The dead included women and children whose bodies were recovered in the nightclothes and blankets in which they had apparently been sleeping. A Washington Post special correspondent watched as the corpses of three women and three boys who appeared to be younger than 10 were removed Tuesday from the house.”

Because in this case—unlike in so many others in which American air power utilizes “precisely guided munitions”—there was on-the-spot reporting for an American newspaper, the US military command was required to explain these casualties. Without conceding that the deaths actually occurred, Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, director of the Coalition Press Information Center in Baghdad, commented: “We continue to see terrorists and insurgents using civilians in an attempt to shield themselves.”

Notice that Lt. Col. Johnson (while not admitting that civilians had actually died) did assert US policy: If suspected guerrillas use any building as a refuge, a full-scale attack on that structure is justified, even if the insurgents attempt to use civilians to “shield themselves.” These are, in other words, essential US rules of engagement. The attack should be “precise” only in the sense that planes and/or helicopter gunships should seek as best they can to avoid demolishing surrounding structures. Put another way, it is more important to stop the insurgents than protect the innocent.

And notice that the military, single-mindedly determined to kill or capture the insurgents, cannot stop to allow for the evacuation of civilians either. Any delay might let the insurgents escape, either disguised as civilians or through windows, backdoors, cellars, or any of the other obvious escape routes urban guerrillas might take. Any attack must be quickly organized and—if possible—unexpected.

update— And then I wake up to this:

Pakistan on Saturday condemned a purported CIA airstrike on a border village that officials said unsuccessfully targeted al-Qaida’s second-in-command, and said it was protesting to the U.S. Embassy over the attack that killed at least 17 people.

Thousands of local tribesmen, chanting “God is Great,” demonstrated against the attack, claiming the victims were local villagers without terrorist links and had never hosted Ayman al-Zawahri.

Two senior Pakistani officials told The Associated Press that the CIA acted on incorrect information in launching the attack early Friday in the northwestern village of Damadola, near the Afghan border.

Citing unidentified American intelligence officials, U.S. news networks reported that CIA-operated Predator drone aircraft carried out the missile strike because al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenant, was thought to be at a compound in the village or about to arrive.

“Their information was wrong, and our investigations conclude that they acted on a false information,” said a senior Pakistani intelligence official with direct knowledge of Pakistan’s investigations into the attack.

  1. Pharyngula    Jan 18, 07:45 AM    #
    Open Thread...

    Open Thread I'm doing some traveling and touristy things with grrlscientist today, on top of somehow coping with the first week of classes (physiology and our freshman seminar in biological principles), and attending Drinking Liberally at the 331 Club...

  2. mikey    Jan 18, 03:16 PM    #
    This administration and the pentagon has been appallingly callous about the deaths of Iraqi citizens during the entire Iraq debacle. While literally worshiping at the feet of american soldiers, the casual, careless attitude with which they discuss the deaths of miscelaneous brown people (when they deign to discuss them at all) sickens me. Our guys torture them and they're heros. We blow up a family, they're terrorists. God, I miss America...


  3. Long story; short pier. » Blog Archive » Lay down the mony upon the nail, and the business is done.    Jan 18, 10:51 PM    #
    [...] First, at the very least, trust but verify; it’s a long way from “ABC News has learned that Pakistani officials now believe” to the blithe assertion that “we did get one of al Qæda’s big fish in the attack on Damadola last week.” Remember: never assume, for if you do, you make an ass out of you and me. [...]

  4. Martin Wisse    Jan 19, 12:46 PM    #
    Remember, it isn't terrorism if the US does it!

    And welcome back.

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