WASHINGTON - The firestorm over the Sept. 16 shooting of more than a dozen unarmed Iraqis by members of Blackwater USA, a private security firm, has sparked renewed calls for the US military to release its own records related to the killing of Iraqi civilians at checkpoints or near convoys.
Private security contractors such as Blackwater and US soldiers are authorized to fire at vehicles that get too close to convoys or checkpoints, after giving a series of warnings known as "escalation of force."
US military officials say they have launched a successful effort to reduce the number of such shootings by training soldiers to give more visible warnings, but the Pentagon so far has declined to release data to back up the assertion. That refusal has sparked a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking copies of military reports on such escalation-of-force shootings. Key members of Congress have also called for the release of the documents.
"Without these documents being released, we don't really know how well the military is doing," said Jon Tracy, a former judge advocate general in Iraq who now works for CIVIC, a Washington-based group that seeks to curb civilian deaths. "We don't know how often this happens, and when it does happen. We can't know if a soldier reasonably had fear or was the soldier was just trigger-happy?"
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who has been an outspoken advocate of civilian victims in Iraq and Afghanistan, has renewed calls for the Pentagon to create a declassified database of civilian deaths.
"Such a database would assist in evaluating the effectiveness of the Pentagon's efforts to reduce civilian casualties and in determining appropriate compensation for the victims' families," Leahy said in a statement to the Globe last week. "It would also help to credibly refute inaccurate claims of civilian deaths."
Military officials who worked on the effort to reduce civilian deaths say that the information Leahy and the ACLU are seeking is classified. Military spokesmen reached in Baghdad said they would release statistics on escalation-of-force killings when they become available but did not provide statistics for this report.
Civilian shootings by Blackwater and other contractors have come under scrutiny since the Sept. 16 episode. Blackwater has reported involvement in 195 shootings since 2005, 80 percent of which were deemed "escalation of force incidents" in which Blackwater fired without being fired upon. But contractors are not required to complete the same rigorous investigations of shootings that the US military conducts.
Initial reports suggest that the Sept. 16 event was sparked when a driver unwittingly came too close to the Blackwater convoy and was shot by Blackwater personnel. As the dead driver's car continued rolling toward the convoy, Blackwater security reportedly continued to shoot, killing at least 14 people and sparking an uproar in the Iraqi government and on Capitol Hill.
Similarly, hundreds of shootings at US checkpoints and near convoys have ignited simmering outrage among Iraqis for years and taken hundreds of lives, although they have not gotten the attention in the United States that the Blackwater shooting has received.
"Many hundreds are killed and their cases are not even recognized," said Karzan Sherabayani, an Iraqi living in London who made a documentary about his struggle to find out what happened to his 75-year-old uncle, whose car was hit with more than 80 bullets when he tried to turn around at a checkpoint in Kirkurk. "I wanted to know if somebody had been given responsibility for this."
Of 500 claims for compensation filed by Iraqi families and released after an ACLU court action, 133 were allegedly killed for driving too close to a convoy, while 59 were allegedly killed at checkpoints.
Those cases include allegations that US soldiers, on several occasions, shot at random from convoys, killing bystanders; a case in which soldiers allegedly fired 200 rounds into a car that did not stop soon enough at a checkpoint, killing two parents and injuring their two young children; and an allegation that US soldiers had fired on a car carrying a pregnant woman who was on her way to the hospital to give birth, killing her.
In the vast majority of cases, soldiers were deemed to have acted within their rights to fire at the vehicles that they feared posed a threat. Soldiers were found negligent in only a tiny handful of cases. In many cases, the claims were denied because the event had not been reported up the chain of command.
Military officials say soldiers are under tremendous pressure at checkpoints and in convoys, and often have only a few seconds to decide if a vehicle is a threat. Sometimes, they say, soldiers err on the side of killing an innocent driver instead of risking death to himself and fellow soldiers.
"They are 19, 20 years old and we are asking them to make some pretty big decisions, and they are doing a great job," said Colonel Kent Crossley, former chief of Analysis and Integration at the Center for Army Lessons Learned at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., who served multiple tours in Iraq. Crossley cochaired a conference earlier this year on how to rewrite the handbook on "escalation of force" procedures in a way that could reduce civilian deaths.
He said the military was trying to give soldiers the tools to avoid such killings, including nonlethal tactics, and better, more visible signs which can be understood by Iraqis who do not speak English.
"Just because you have the right to use lethal force, it doesn't mean you should. That's what we are trying to teach these soldiers," he said.
When General Peter Chiarelli arrived in Iraq as the number-two US military official in 2006, he announced that every "escalation of force" shooting that resulted in a death or injury should be investigated and reported up the chain of command in what is known as a "15-6" report.
Within months, the number of reported checkpoint shootings dropped dramatically, from one per day to one a week, military officials said, heralding a major success.
But in July, the McClatchy news service reported that the number of "escalation of force" shootings had spiked with the increase of US troops in recent months, with 429 civilians killed or wounded in checkpoint and convoy shootings over the past year.
© 2007 The Boston Globe