Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Fragile Awakening

By Cernig

This kind of thing isn't helpful.
An Iraqi Sunni tribal leader who has joined forces with United States troops to fight al-Qaeda militants says up to 50 of his men were killed during a US onslaught after what was apparently a communications mix-up.

The incident last week is threatening to undermine the precarious alliance between US forces and Arab sheikhs heading the "awakening councils" that have turned against Islamic fanatics - a key part of the "surge" strategy in central Iraq.

Sheikh Shadhir Abid Salim Assaf said his fighters were conducting a night mission approved by US commanders at one base, when they were attacked by US forces from another camp.

The sheikh spoke of how he received a desperate call from his brother late on Tuesday, saying the men were under fire from the ground and air from US forces and pleading for help.

He said he immediately contacted US officials with whom he was working at the nearby base of Taji, but was told that the operation had been ordered from farther away at Balad. His brother was among those killed in a ferocious bombardment that lasted several hours.

Abu Jafar, a survivor, said the fighters were wearing US-issued reflective bands to identify them as friendly forces. He described horrendous scenes to the Los Angeles Times. "I saw my comrades turned into shreds, screaming and shouting. We couldn't find a place to hide."

Sheikh Assaf said the incident had broken the bonds tribal leaders had developed with US forces in their new battle against a common enemy.

"They didn't respect their promises to us. They let us down, killed our brothers and sons after we helped them and put our hands in their hands to fight al-Qaeda," he told the paper.
The mere fact of such a mistake is bad enough - but U.S. military reaction looks set to only make things worse.
US officers said they were investigating the reports, but insisted they conducted the raids against known rebel targets near Taji, 20 miles north of Baghdad.

"I can only say that we had personnel on the ground who engaged a hostile force that fired on them and whom they suspected of being terrorist affiliates," said Major Winfield Danielson, a military spokesman.

...The US military said its soldiers called in air strikes after coming under fire from suspected insurgents as they hunted al-Qaeda extremists.

It said 24 gunmen were killed and 16 arrested, and said council fighters should not have been present in the area at the time.

"They help to man checkpoints and provide tips to local authorities to help them apprehend terrorists and criminals," said Lieut Justin Cole. "They're not authorised to act independently of the law to round up al-Qaeda or any other criminals themselves."
This arrogant and pre-emptive CYA attitude - that the Sheik's people had no business being there and so no mistake will be admitted - is reminiscent of Blackwater's protestations of innocence as well as previous claims of U.S. military infallibility that later proved optimistic in the extreme in incidents involving civilians, Iraqi forces and even British allies. However, in an honor culture like Iraq, such will likely be seen as an even greater insult than the shootings themselves. If alliances with Iraqi "concerned citizens" are to survive such mistakes, which will always happen in the fog of war, then the U.S. military must abandon its "we can do no wrong" attitude.

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