In a letter sent to Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld late last week, London-based Amnesty International asked whether the US military has adopted a policy of demolishing houses of the families of suspected insurgents in Iraq.
At the same time, New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (LCHR) dispatched a letter to the US Commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, regarding the status of military investigations announced over the past 11 months into the deaths of three suspected Taliban members while they were in US custody.
Both inquiries come amid indications that the US forces in both countries are stepping up counterinsurgency operations, particularly in the so-called Sunni Triangle of central Iraq and the predominantly Pashtun areas of eastern and southern Afghanistan, where some 10,000 US troops are trying to repel Taliban forces returning from Pakistan two years after being ousted from power in a brief US-led military campaign.
Five US troops were killed and seven more wounded when a helicopter crashed just outside Bagram Air Base near Kabul Sunday, although the causes of the crash have not yet been determined. At least two more were badly injured when their humvee hit a land mind close to the border with Pakistan.
Ten US soldiers have been killed in combat in Afghanistan so far this year, a fraction of the 300 killed in combat in Iraq since the US-led invasion there in late March. But Washington is increasingly concerned about the Taliban's growing presence in an increasing number of provinces, particularly amid preparations for elections next year.
Similarly, in Iraq, the spread of violent resistance to the US occupation from the Sunni Triangle northwards to Mosul, where two US soldiers were killed Sunday, as well as its increased intensity and sophistication, was apparently behind the decision by the Pentagon earlier this month to pursue a counterinsurgency war more aggressively than in the past.
In the past two weeks, US forces have used a number of new tactics, including the bombing by warplanes and attack helicopters of suspected guerrilla hideouts and supply depots. The tactics appear designed primarily to intimidate resistance fighters, in part by taking the war to them, rather than adopting a more defensive posture.
It is in that context that Amnesty is asking that the Pentagon respond to reports that its forces have demolished a number of Iraqi homes in recent weeks.
The US government should clarify whether it has officially permitted house demolitions as a form of collective punishment or deterrence, the group said in its letter. If such proved to be the case, it would constitute a clear violation of international humanitarian law.
Amnesty said it has received reports that on November 10 US soldiers arrived at the farmhouse of the Najim family near the town of al-Mahmudiya, south of Baghdad, and ordered all the residents to leave. Later that day, two F-16 warplanes reportedly bombed and destroyed the house.
As reported by witnesses and the media, the operation was apparently carried out in retaliation for an attack a few days earlier by armed Iraqi groups against a US convoy that resulted in the death of an officer.
The next day, US soldiers arrested six men outside the Najim house after weapons were found inside a truck parked there. More weapons and ammunition were reported to have been found when the house was searched.
"It seems that the destruction of the Najim family house was carried out as collective punishment and not for absolute military necessity," said Amnesty, quoting a provision in the Fourth Geneva Convention that defines the only basis upon which an occupying power is permitted to destroy property.
Amnesty said it had learned that at least 15 houses have been destroyed by US forces since November 16 in or near Tikrit alone. In one case, in the village of al-Haweda, a family was given five minutes to evacuate their house before it was razed to the ground by tanks and helicopter fire.
In another case, according to Amnesty, two men, four children and two babies were said to have been left in freezing night temperatures in the back of a truck before their house was demolished.
A US military official with the 82nd Airborne Division, Maj. Lou Zeisman, was quoted in media reports as saying: If you shot at an American or Coalition force member, you are going to be killed or you are going to be captured, and if we trace somebody back to a specific safe house, we are going to destroy that facility. We didn't destroy a house just because we were angry that someone was killed; we did it because the people there were linked to the attack, and we are not going to tolerate it anymore
House demolition has evoked considerable controversy over the years due to its use by Israeli occupation forces against the homes of suspected Palestinian insurgents. Israeli officials are reported to have briefed US officers at length on the tactics they have used against the Palestinian resistance.
Iraqis themselves appear to be aware that the Pentagon may be applying the same tactics. The Americans want to follow the Israeli plan, one elderly resident in a village near Tikrit told the Washington Post. It doesn't work there. Why will it work here?
Indeed, some analysts have warned that the more-aggressive US counterinsurgency tactics of the past several weeks risked provoking greater resistance as well. Dr. Wamid Nadmi, a professor of political science at Baghdad University, told Knight-Ridder this weekend, that while the escalation may catch more insurgents, the other side is this will increase the people's rage against the Americans, especially those people whose homes are being destroyed or family members are being killed.
Amnesty called on Rumsfeld to immediately rescind any policy of unlawful destruction of property and collective punishment, and to offer compensation to all families whose houses have been destroyed due to suspicion of a family member's ties to the insurgency.
For its part, LCHR noted the deaths in custody at Bagram Airbase last December of two Afghan adults known as Mullah Habibullah and Dilawar, who were reported to have suffered blunt force injuries and whose deaths were classified as homicides.
In March 2003, Lt. Gen. Daniel McNeill ordered a criminal investigation. A similar investigation was announced regarding the death at a US holding facility near Asadabad of another Afghan, known as Walli, last June. The BBC quoted sources suggesting that Walli had been tortured during interrogation.
On June 26, President George W. Bush said the US would not tolerate torture or cruel and unusual punishment of detainees, and the Pentagon's General Counsel stated at the time that anyone found to have broken the law in relation to the deaths of the three men would be prosecuted.
Despite worldwide concern, to our knowledge no further information has been made public about the status of the investigations into these three cases, LCHR wrote in its letter asking Gen. Vines to respond to a series of questions regarding the investigations and their progress.
The investigations were announced amid press reports that US captives were often softened up by US soldiers before interrogation on detainees deemed uncooperative.
LCHRs letter also comes amid growing controversy over disciplinary action taken by the Army against Lt. Col. Allen West, who has admitted to firing his pistol over the shoulder of a detainee during interrogation to elicit information about planned ambushes against US soldiers. The Army has reportedly threatened West with criminal prosecution.
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