Hundreds of civilians gunned down at checkpoints

It was lunchtime on September 6 2008 when a pickup truck travelling down a highway in Ninewah province, northwest Iraq, met a US convoy driving in the opposite direction. The driver of the truck was elderly and had cataracts.

When the truck didn’t slow down, the soldiers in the convoy tried to get the driver’s attention. They shouted, waved and showed their weapons. But the driver apparently couldn’t see them and the truck still didn’t slow down. So the soldiers fired warning shots.

An EOF begins with audible warnings such as horns and flash or bang devices, and visual aids such as lights and flares, according to US Army Traffic Control Operations Handbook. April 2006.

Realising he was under fire, the driver tried to stop the truck. But the brakes were poor and he lost control of the vehicle. When the vehicle didn’t stop, the US soldiers fired at the driver. He was killed.

The allegations about the incident, reported in the secret war logs, are just one of hundreds of similar tragic cases where it appears Iraqi civilians approaching checkpoints or convoys were killed by US soldiers.

September 6 2008

…they noted 3 x people in the vehicle, including 2 x Males and 1 x elderly man, who was the driver. The elderly man had wounds that appeared to be fragmentation from the vehicle and was KIA [killed in action] on the scene. They searched the vehicle and found nothing suspicious. The CF [coalition forces] questioned the remaining 2 x Males, who said that the elderly man driving had cataracts and was unable to see properly. Also, the brakes on the old vehicle were not functional. CF took the KIA LN [local national] to the Tal Uwaynat IP [Iraqi police]. SIR [serious incident report] sent up through CF channels BDA [battle damage assessment]: 1x LN KIA S2 ASSESSMENT: NOT REQUIRED REPORT STATUS: /CLOSED/

The US war logs show that there were 13,963 incidents linked to convoys or at checkpoints across Iraq from 2004-2009. Most of them ended harmlessly, but when things went wrong it was civilians, more often than not, that got killed.

Through an extensive manual count, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism can reveal that 681, more than 80 per cent of those killed in similar incidents, were civilians. Fifty families were shot at and at least 30 children reported killed. In contrast, only 120 insurgents died in checkpoint incidents in the same period.

Including Iraqi Army and police deaths, 832 were reported killed in incidents at checkpoints and involving convoys.

The numbers that died in this type of incident got worse as the war progressed. In 2004, the war logs indicate there were 22 civilian deaths. By the following year this had increased to nearly 300.

Is it just shout… then shoot?

During the US occupation, a large number of checkpoints were set up across Iraq, many manned by US troops. Soldiers stationed at these checkpoints were trained to deal with potential threats. A strict set of rules laid down a warning procedure called Escalation of Force (EOF), which all soldiers had to follow if they felt threatened.

Related article: One day in Iraq: 128 dead including three women and one child

According to an official manual issued by the US military, an EOF begins with audible warnings such as horns and flash/bang devices, and visual aids such as lights and flares. If these fail, warning shots can be fired into the air or in the vicinity of the threat. The next step is to fire at the tyres and engine. As a last resort, soldiers are allowed to aim at the driver.

This procedure did not always work.

Baghdad checkpoint - The US Army/Flickr
Baghdad checkpoint - The US Army/Flickr


In one particularly tragic incident, it is reported that a US Marine fired on a car that didn’t slow down. It was 3.30 in the afternoon, on June 14 2005 in Ramadi, a town to the west of Baghdad. The Marine had tried hand signals and waving, but still the car approached at high speed.

About 100 metres from the checkpoint, the Marine fired at the front grille of the car. The shots stopped the car but also killed seven people in the vehicle. Two were children.

The writer of the log seems to suggest the civilians involved were partly responsible for the deaths of the children, because they had placed them on the floor of the vehicle.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has unearthed 681 cases of reported civilian deaths caused by coalition Escalation of Force incidents. This is more than five times the number of insurgents killed in such incidents, which stands at 120.

June 14 2005

At 1530D… a maroon 4-door Opel disregarded all hand and arm signals and continued at a high rate of speed… when the vehicle did not stop, the S. Bridge OP and 1/5 jump which was part of the cordon engaged the front grill of the vehicle at approximately 100 metres but the vehicle continued to approach at 40-45 MPH.  When the vehicle did not stop after all the warning shots the marines engaged the driver to stop the vehicle. The vehicle stopped directly in front of the orange cones. There were a total of 11X civilians in the vehicle. The engagement resulted in 7 X CIV killed (2 X were children) and 2 X CIV inj.  The large number of civilian KIA [Killed in Action] resulted from the family having placed their children on the floor boards of the vehicle.  The disabling shots aimed at the grill are believed to have travelled through the vehicle low to the floor boards causing the large number of KIA. No CF [Coalition Forces] INJ/damage.

In another incident, on December 11 2005, a three-year-old boy was killed. An elderly woman in the car was shot in the hand and fragments of glass had become lodged in her eyes. She refused treatment for her wounds, however, telling forces that she needed to bury the infant first.

The logs also contain details of the well-reported shooting of a vehicle carrying a rescued Italian journalist, Giuliana Sgrena. An Italian intelligence agent, Nicola Calipari was killed when US forces initiated EOF procedures on the vehicle on March 2 2005.  Sgrena, along with another secret agent, Andrea Carpani, were wounded in the incident.

A new approach

Rising civilian deaths from EOF procedures meant that Iraqi citizens rapidly lost trust in the coalition forces. A US Army-issued Traffic Control Operations Handbook of April 2006 identified the increasing discontent: “There is a perception that coalition forces (CF) engage in indiscriminate killing, which undermines information operations and public affairs campaigns.”

The handbook laid down a set of rules for EOF proceedings, in an attempt to reduce civilian casualties. In the handbook, Lieutenant General David Petraeus, who was later to take over as coalition Commander in Chief in Iraq, said: “In reference to conducting [Traffic Control Points] you must shape situations to minimise the tough calls, and train our leaders on how to react … this will reduce the number of Iraqi civilian injuries and deaths.”

Death rates dropped. But people were still killed. From May 2006 to the end of 2009, 320 further civilian deaths from EOF incidents were recorded in the Iraq war logs.