Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The U.S. military’s strict rules of engagement underscore a sharp contrast between its conduct and the enemy’s, as al Qaeda grows more desperate to inflict carnage in Iraq.

U.S. commanders have laid down restrictions on firing weapons, entering mosques and the treatment of detainees in a war often fought at night against an elusive, hard-to-identify enemy.

At the same time, Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda in Iraq is willing to strike any civilian target as the year-old U.S. troop surge kills terrorists and pushes their cells out of urban areas and into the countryside.

“Where else do you see a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine fight incredibly hard one minute and then show the great depths of compassion the next against those that they are trying to protect as well as against those they have just fought against?” said Col. Steven Boylan, spokesman for Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq.

“When the enemy is wounded, we go to extreme lengths to ensure they are well cared for,” Col. Boylan said. “That is in our nature.”

The depths to which al Qaeda will descend in order to kill people was perhaps best illustrated last week, when operatives affixed remotely controlled bombs to two women who appeared to be mentally disabled. The blasts killed scores of Iraqis in an open-air market.

A senior U.S. military officer in Iraq, who asked not to be named, said al Qaeda has stepped up the use of suicide-vest bombings in recent weeks in a desperate attempt to kill more Iraqis and defeat the surge.

“Al Qaeda continues to use the only true weapon they have, which is the suicide bomber, and have seen some increases in the suicide vest-type attacks,” the officer said. “These types of attacks are extremely difficult to defend against, since you cannot stop every single person in Iraq to be searched.”

Ilario Pantano, a former Marine officer who led a platoon in Anbar province when it was infested with al Qaeda, said his men “spent a lot time” learning the complex rules of engagement before deploying.

“We spent time on role playing,” Mr. Pantano said. “But you could spend years on training and in a split second get it right or get it wrong. American soldiers are asked to make millions of decisions a day on the use of force. ‘Why is he on a cell phone? Where is that woman going? Who is this guy coming at me?’ ”

Mr. Pantano attributes the military’s relatively good conduct record to “American character, the Judeo-Christian teachings, which most of us grow up with in America, in which killing is taboo.”

The Pentagon’s insistence on proper conduct is exemplified in the written rules of engagement for military police, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times. The rules are similar for other ground units.

The rules urge MPs to first shout a warning, using the Arabic word for “halt” and display a weapon, before resorting to force.

The rules state, in part, “You may use force, up to and including deadly force, against hostile actors in self-defense; in defense of your unit, or other U.S. forces; [and] to prevent the theft, damage or destruction of firearms, ammunition, explosives or property designated by your commander as vital to national security. Protect other property with less than deadly force.

“If U.S. or coalition forces or innocent civilians are being attacked or reasonably perceived to be in danger, you are authorized to respond with deadly force without first employing less forms of force,” the rules state. “Any persons demonstrating hostile intent or committing a hostile act may be engaged using necessary and proportional force, up to and including deadly force.”

Abiding by the laws of war is an integral part of the U.S. strategy. If U.S. soldiers are to rid neighborhoods of al Qaeda operatives, they must win over the population. That cannot be done if soldiers abuse civilians.

“Even the best professional soldiers in a counterinsurgency environment have a difficult time adhering to strict rules of engagement when dealing with a devilish adversary like al Qaeda,” said Robert Maginnis, a retired Army officer and news media military analyst. “It’s done through discipline. Commanders have to constantly remind them before a mission what they can and cannot do.”

One of the first messages Gen. Petraeus sent to troops last year, as the surge unfolded, was a reminder not to overreact to the enemy’s gruesome methods.

“The environment in Iraq is the most challenging that I have seen in over 32 years of service,” he said. “Indeed, few soldiers have ever had to contend with the reality of an enemy willing to blow himself up for his twisted cause. In view of that, as you conduct your daily operations, remember that you have every right to protect yourself, even as you attempt to prevent situations from escalating without good reason.”

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