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Pentagon Officials Express Regret Over Killing of  Civilians - 2003-12-11


Even Pentagon spokesmen acknowledge it has not been a good week for the U.S. military. First there was word of the accidental deaths of 15 children in two U.S. anti-terrorist strikes in Afghanistan. Then an independent report was released by a leading human rights group claiming hundreds of civilian deaths caused by American forces in Iraq were preventable.

Pentagon officials, from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on down, were full of regret this past week - especially over the accidental killings of Afghan children, six in a strike on a suspected terrorist compound and nine others in an attack aimed at killing a Taleban loyalist linked to terrorism.

But Secretary Rumsfeld and other spokesmen defended the actions of U.S. forces, both in Afghanistan and Iraq, where a new report by Human Rights Watch contends hundreds of civilian deaths could have been avoided if the military abandoned two tactics - the use of cluster munitions and so-called decapitation strikes. These are attacks aimed at killing key leaders or commanders during the Iraq war and now aimed at insurgents targeting coalition troops.

Such attacks have also been described as "targeted killings" - a phrase Mr. Rumsfeld says gives a wrong impression.

"We're in a war where, obviously, the people who don't surrender, who are terrorists trying to kill innocent Iraqis and coalition forces, are people we want to stop," he said. "We would be happy to capture them, we'd be happy to have them surrender, and if they don't, we'd be happy to kill them. And that's what's going on."

But Mr. Rumsfeld says that to suggest U.S. or other coalition forces are hungry to kill is wrong.

"But the implication or the connotation of 'targeted killing' I think is unfortunate because it suggests an appetite to do that, which is not the case," said Donald Rumsfeld. "The goal is to stop terrorists from killing innocent men, women and children, Iraqis, and coalition forces. It seems like a perfectly logical thing to me."

Still, there are risks, as evidenced in Afghanistan in the accidental killings of children.

General Richard Myers, chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledges risks abound. "There are risks anytime you go after any target," he said. "But I can tell you, the kind of vetting that the process goes through, from the beginnings of intelligence to the final operation, is exquisite. And we're not going to be perfect, and we found that out in Afghanistan. And we haven't been perfect. But I would offer, and would offer again, that both in Afghanistan and Iraq, that the amount of force brought to bear, that the progress that was made, the success we've had, has never been done with more care about bringing innocents into the line of fire. And that will continue. And that's what American service men and women do."

Pentagon officials reiterated that point in responding to the Human Rights Watch report critical of the use of cluster munitions and attempts to kill top Iraqi leaders during the major combat phase of the war.

They note cluster munitions are legitimate, precision-guided weapons and that targeting so-called command and control figures is also a valid tactic. They also say cluster munitions were rarely used near civilian neighborhoods and that overall civilian casualties during the war were far fewer than might have been expected.

In addition, defense spokesmen note that on many occasions, U.S. forces did not engage certain targets because of the risk of civilian casualties, even though, they note, Saddam Hussein often positioned military units and equipment in civilian areas.

Still, these military officials acknowledge any unintended civilian death is a tragedy and they admit there is little they can do to minimize the bad news when such tragedies happen.

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