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Iraq Insurgents Use Hospital Patients as Human Shields, Children as Spies, Says US Military

Two incidents this past Saturday in western Iraq illustrated for U.S. forces in the area the difficulty of fighting the insurgency. While U.S. marines in the area were launching a large-scale offensive against insurgents, other U.S. forces continued to deal with smaller scale, but also potentially deadly, insurgent operations. VOA Pentagon correspondent Al Pessin spoke to a U.S. military spokesman in Fallujah, Iraq about some of the tactics the insurgents are using.

U.S. marines were on a routine patrol in the western Iraq town of Haditha Saturday night when they came under fire from insurgents who were inside a hospital. According to Lieutenant Colonel Dave Lapan of the Second Marine Expeditionary Force, the troops were reluctant to fire back, not wanting to hit any civilians inside the building. So they entered the hospital and searched for the insurgents room by room.

"Once they were able to make their way into the hospital, they determined that the insurgents had indeed set up fortified firing positions inside the hospital, with sandbags and such," he noted. "And the other thing that they discovered when they went into the hospital to root out the insurgents is the insurgents were using the hospital staff and the patients as human shields to cover their retreat back inside the building."

Lieutenant Colonel Lapan says the insurgents placed patients and hospital staff in the hallways, and held some as they fled, to prevent the marines from firing.

"It did provide a challenge to our marines to be able to go in and get the insurgents out without harming any of the hospital staff or the patients," he said. "And I'm happy to say that that was the case, that we were able to kill and wound some insurgents, but no Iraqi civilians, either hospital staff or patients, were injured."

The battle at the hospital came on the same day as another unusual incident at a forward base near the Syrian border called Camp Gannon. The camp was attacked by a fire truck packed with explosives a couple of weeks ago, so the troops there are particularly vigilant. But they may not have expected what they found on Saturday.

"Marines at Camp Gannon found an 11-year-old Syrian boy, who was trying to make his way onto the camp itself," he added. "They detained him and questioned him and determined that he had been paid by some insurgents to try to find entry routes into the camp."

The 11-year-old "spy" was being held in what Lieutenant Colonel Lapan calls 'protective custody,' while the U.S. military worked to arrange his return to his family in Syria.

Lieutenant Colonel Lapan says these kinds of insurgent tactics - the use of civilian buildings, human shields and children - are disturbing, but are not unprecedented.

"The insurgency and some of the terrorists that operate here have used hospitals before, have used schools, certainly have used mosques to fire on our forces. We have known of other occasions where they have used women and children to shield their movements. We have known of instances where they have recruited children to do things for them, either for money or through intimidation. So the tactics, as disturbing as they are, unfortunately are not new," he explained.

The U.S. marine spokesman says U.S. troops get special training to help them deal with combat situations in which civilians are involved, and do their best to avoid civilian casualties, although that is not always possible.