March 24, 2003

Ambush Alley Marines have a

Ambush Alley

Marines have a nickname for the environs of Nasiriya: "ambush alley".

Aside from the unexpectedly high death toll to coalition forces, the story deals prominently with the dangers the recent battles in Nasiriya have presented to civilians in the area:

"Iraqi fighters pushed women and children into the streets to serve as human shields and drive up the civilian death toll, officers said. Civilian casualty numbers were unknown."

"It's not pretty," Officer Woellhof said. "It's not surgical. You want surgical, you should have left the place alone. You try to limit collateral damage, but they want to fight. Now it's just smash mouth football."

I have been worried that, confronted with significant urban resistance (particularly feigned surrenders, possible suicide attacks, "troops" fighting in civilian clothes) the degree of anger, frustration and urgency among allied military forces would ratchet up--leading to more robust (and less precise) tactics that would potentially kill significant numbers of civilians. These are the perhaps inevitable results of pitched battles being fought in unorthodox manner by Iraqis resisting the coalition advance. Of course, no one expected Saddam's thuggish regime to play by Marquess of Queensbury rules.

In addition, Saddam likely realizes that the propaganda value of such carnage, beemed back by Al-Jazeera T.V. crews in places like Basra, is almost as important to his efforts as holding back the coalition advance to Baghdad. Prospects of regional destabilization (I am particularly worried, currently, about Jordan) will be enhanced if the numbers of civilian dead begins to mount into the hundreds and beyond. Such developments, I trust, are still far-fetched. But we can be sure Saddam will enhance the chances of such regional shocks occuring so as to ratchet up pressure on Washington from the international community.

American war planners must remain keenly aware of this dynamic and not, in frustration, begin taking out targets where large numbers of civilians are located with any frequency. The problem is, of course, the lives of coalition troops are on the line as well--what to do when soldiers are being shot and killed from a building where civilians are located too?

The Colonel interviewed for this piece answered this question:

"If he puts his combat forces near hospitals, schools, or anything else that uses that area to direct fire, we will engage the enemy wherever he is shooting at us. The enemy commander is responsible for any collateral damage caused by putting enemy forces near a protected site."

We must hope and pray that such actions are not necessitated too often in the coming days.

UPDATE: The above linked NYT story has been significantly changed since it initially went online. There is no longer a reference to "ambush alley" and some of the quoted language I posted has been removed from the revised version of the story. It appears to me that quoted military personnel were emoting in direct fashion (given the strain of pitched battle) and higher-ups felt the language was too direct. Put simply, it appears as if the story were "sanitized" a bit per Pentagon request. Certainly, in my opinion, Howell Raines wouldn't have made these edits of his own volition.

UPDATE: See below a relevant quote from retired Marine Corps General Bernard Trainor:

Question: Are the Marines and the Army troops under too many constraints? They seem so worried about killing civilians that some people wonder if they are taking unnecessary losses.

Trainor: "That one's a judgment call. I mean somebody comes at you with a white flag. And even though you have to be wary of him, you still must make an assumption he's genuinely surrendering. You just can't shoot him. So that automatically makes you somewhat vulnerable. But there is not much you can do about that except keep your finger on the trigger, and if he makes a false move, then unload on him.

But the other restrictions, are they inhibiting us? Yes they are, but I think justifiably so. I mean, if we are going in there to liberate a place, it doesn't seem to me to be appropriate to take out a lot of civilians in the process of liberating them. For example, the British down around Basra have been wanting to open fire on some ancient T-55 tanks and some artillery pieces that the Iraqi military has in the suburbs of Basra. They are not getting the permission [to do so]. Why? Because if they fired on them, there would be collateral damage and civilian casualties. So, I think that's understandable. It's frustrating some of the military but then you have to find means around them. Properly so, the president said the war is not with Iraqis but with the Baathist regime."

Posted by Gregory at March 24, 2003 05:51 PM
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