- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2006

The top U.S. commander in Baghdad has changed the way troops set up roadblocks in an attempt to reduce the accidental killing or wounding of civilians.

Army Maj. Gen. James Thurman, who commands 29,000 American troops in Baghdad and its outskirts, said he has put a stop to impromptu “flash snap” traffic checkpoints that could be confusing to Iraqis and lead to dangerous encounters.

There have been incidents in which Iraqis did not recognize checkpoints. U.S. soldiers, fearful of a vehicle-borne suicide bomber, have fired on the cars after the driver did not stop on command. Some turned out to be frightened or confused drivers — not insurgents.

The issue of noncombatant deaths has received heightened attention in recent weeks with accusations that Marines murdered 24 Iraqis in the town of Haditha. The American command last month ordered retraining for every soldier and Marine on core values and protecting civilians.

Gen. Thurman talked with Pentagon reporters via a video link from Iraq amid a major Baghdad crackdown by more than 50,000 U.S. and Iraqi forces. Countrywide, the coalition says it has launched nearly 500 raids in recent weeks and killed more than 100 insurgents.

But the crackdown did not stop a suicide bomber from striking the Buratha Shi’ite mosque in Baghdad during Friday prayers. Wearing a bomb-laden shoe rather than a bomb vest to get around a driving ban, the terrorist targeted, but failed to kill an imam, Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer, a foe of the late al Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Sunni. The blast killed 13 and extensively damage the mosque.

The imam told the Associated Press that guards discovered two pair of bomb-affixed shoes outside the building and immediately went inside to see if anyone was carrying shoes. When they approached the attacker, he detonated his pair. Sheik al-Sagheer belongs to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s United Iraqi Alliance.

The AP said the Interior Ministry questioned whether it was a shoe bomb, saying the extensive damage indicated a much bigger vest bomb.

On eliminating impromptu traffic stops, Gen. Thurman said they were more of a hindrance to Iraqis than an assist to coalition forces.

“I have stressed the importance of respect to people and that we are in support of the Iraqi government and Iraqi people. That’s the No. 1 thing right there,” Gen. Thurman said.

His troops are also double-checking to make sure Army vehicles are plainly marked and that soldiers do not blind drivers with bright lights as they approach a search point.

He said each time there is an incident in which civilians are harmed or confronted he requires extensive after-action reviews to see how it could have been prevented.

“This requires a lot of small unit leadership, and that’s what this is all about,” said the commander, who has been in Iraq since January.

In a war environment where insurgents blend in with civilians, his sector has reduced escalation-of-force incidents by 50 percent. Gen. Thurman provided no overall statistics.

“We have these soldiers in a very tough environment over here,” he said. “It’s very complicated and it’s complex. And I think we’re doing a good job under the conditions of really trying to drive down the escalation of force. [This] is the toughest and most complex war that I’ve ever been involved in, and I’ve been in the Army for 31 years.”

Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, chief U.S. command spokesman, said June 1 that all combatants were getting a refresher course on the rules of engagement.

“The young men and women who are out there are taught exactly what the rules of engagement are in terms of whether it be escalation of force,” he said.

“What you’re going to find, as a general rule, that a young man or woman is not going to engage somebody unless it is a hostile force, and a hostile force means you feel that your life is personally threatened or … it may be something where they’re moving towards your location with weapons in their hand with clearly hostile intent.”

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