2005 March 06 Sunday
American Checkpoints Are Poorly Marked In Iraq

Writing for the Christian Science Monitor reporter Annia Ciezadlo had already filed a story about the dangers of checkpoints in Iraq before American soldiers opened fire on a car carrying a Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena after insurgents released her. The short summation is that US checkpoints are poorly marked and Iraqi drivers have been conditioned by Saddam's rule to speed by government buildings and soldiers.

As an American journalist here, I have been through many checkpoints and have come close to being shot at several times myself. I look vaguely Middle Eastern, which perhaps makes my checkpoint experience a little closer to that of the typical Iraqi. Here's what it's like.

You're driving along and you see a couple of soldiers standing by the side of the road - but that's a pretty ubiquitous sight in Baghdad, so you don't think anything of it. Next thing you know, soldiers are screaming at you, pointing their rifles and swiveling tank guns in your direction, and you didn't even know it was a checkpoint.

If it's confusing for me - and I'm an American - what is it like for Iraqis who don't speak English?

In situations like this, I've often had Iraqi drivers who step on the gas. It's a natural reaction: Angry soldiers are screaming at you in a language you don't understand, and you think they're saying "get out of here," and you're terrified to boot, so you try to drive your way out.

Do I have to even explain that this is stupid on the part of the American occupation forces?

Making this problem far worse is the fact that under Saddam Iraqis were conditioned to go fast past government building and to never look at the buildings or the soldiers guarding them.

I remember parking outside a ministry with an Iraqi driver, waiting to pick up a friend. After sitting and staring at the building for about half an hour, waiting for our friend to emerge, the driver shook his head.

"If you even looked at this building before, you'd get arrested," he said, his voice full of disbelief. Before, he would speed past this building, gripping the wheel, staring straight ahead, careful not to even turn his head. After 35 years of this, Iraqis still speed up when they're driving past government buildings - which, since the Americans took over a lot of them, tend be to exactly where the checkpoints are.

Do generals running the occupation forces even know what this reporter learned from her Iraqi drivers? I doubt it. Else I'd expect them to change the structure of checkpoints and put up better signs and signals to clearly instruct drivers what to expect and when to expect it.

The Iraqis misunderstand what the Americans want at checkpoints and do not always figure out what are checkpoints to avoid being shot at. The flip side is that the Americans at the checkpoints sometimes misunderstand the intentions of the Iraqis driving up to them. Worse still, the Iraqis can not always recognize American checkpoints as truly being American checkpoints. The Iraqi soldiers who are often around American checkpoints might just as easily be insurgents who are dressed in Iraqi military uniforms (and some insurgents are in the Iraqi military) looking to do kidnappings or killings.

If the neocons want the US military to become an army of occupation then the neocons are going to have to make sure the those soldiers are taught how to do occupations.

Update: Greg Cochran points me to a report about the killing of the Italian agent by US soliders. The Italians have been paying the insurgents a lot of money in order to get Italian hostages released.

President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi announced that he was posthumously awarding Italy's highest military honour, the Medaglia d'Oro, to the ex-immigration officer who became a hostage negotiator, overseeing the release of six Italians abducted in Iraq in the past year.


After weeks of haggling, the ransom for Ms Sgrena had finally been agreed: at least $6m (3.1m), according to the Italian press, and perhaps as much as $8m, had been handed over.

Not surprisingly the American and British military are none to happy about these ransom payments. Suppose the amount paid per Italian released is $6 million each time. Then the Italians may have paid the insurgents $36 million dollars in the last year. That has got to be going toward funding attacks that kill American soldiers. So how many American deaths has the Italian government funded?

Update II: Greg Cochran points me to yet another report, this on the rules of engagement for American soldiers. Writing for the New York Times John Burns (an absolutely first class journalist in my estimation) reports on Iraqis confused by the American rules of engagement and the many Westerners who have been shot at by US soldiers.

Ms. Sgrena and her companions were not the only Western civilians to have come under American fire, according to a series of unclassified government reports that receive extremely restricted circulation, copies of which have been made available to The Times. The reports outline at least six incidents since December in which American troops have fired on vehicles carrying Westerners in the area around the airport.

The reports chronicled one incident in January at a checkpoint near the airport road when an American soldier fired at a car even though it was moving slowly and the driver was holding his identification card in plain sight out of the window. The soldier finally waved the car away and forced it to drive down the wrong side of a road.

In early February, a private security company carrying Western clients was fired upon by American troops on the airport road itself. "This is the second time in three days," the report on the incident noted. Later that month, a Western contractor approaching a checkpoint at roughly five miles an hour after dropping off a passenger at the airport heard gunfire, assumed he was coming under attack by insurgents and tried to speed away.

But the fire turned out to have been from American troops, who fired warning shots, then hit the passenger side windshield, forcing the driver to stop, climb from the car and put his hands in the air.

Many of the people delivering passengers to the airport are ex-military guys hired to do security tasks. If even they can't figure out when US soldiers are trying to direct them to do something what chance does the average Iraqi have of understanding? Also, what does it say about the signs (or lack thereof) that the American soldiers are using to control vehicles? I can see why a new temporary roadblock might not have all the right equipment. But the approach roads right at Baghdad's airport have been under American control since the invasion. Why doesn't the US military have a better system for bringing vehicles into the airport?

This sentence especially stands out describing how soldiers are supposed to keep Iraqi vehicles away from US military convoys:

Generally, the machine-gunner in the last Humvee is instructed to raise a clenched fist - a military gesture meaning "stay back" that few Iraqis understand - then to wave both arms, and throw water bottles or anything else available.

Frequent misunderstandings on both sides are getting lots of innocent civilians killed. Putting lots of soldiers from a different culture and with a language barrier and insufficient training for handling an occupation and counterinsurgency into urban areas to fight an insurgency is a sure fire recipe for getting lots of dead innocent civilians and for stoking resentments among the occupied population.

The latest incident with the dead Italian government agent is obviously part of a larger pattern of poor management decisions on roadblocks and methods of communicating with civilians.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 March 06 12:30 PM  Mideast Iraq

d1etchek said at March 6, 2005 12:48 PM:

Who was driving the Italian journos car? I doubt it was an Iraqi. And wouldn't the Italian intelligence officer who was killed have known to stop? He certainly wasn't an Iraqi.

gcochran said at March 6, 2005 2:47 PM:

The US command doesn't know what happened. At best, they know what some medium-low commander told them. There is a fair possibility that someone on our side screwed up, that the Italians didn't do anything particularly unusual. In fact, since the people driving that Italian car were middle-aged professionals (the dead guy was 50), while the people shooting were possibly much younger and very likely much less experienced, I'd say the odds are that some American soldiers fucked up. But more facts should make it clear.

Was this the part of some plot on someone's behalf? No, unless the insurgents somehow managed to do something that confused out guys, which is logically possible but for which theory there is no single shred of evidence. Probaby just a screw-up.

Is it possible that the screw-up is the result of a mistaken policy, that we are erring in some way, have some suboptimal doctrine that results in too many such accidents? Possibly. The merc bodyguards have been complaining about too many of _their_ vehicles being shot up by mistake: and they too are mostly older and more experienced.

It is a mistake to act as if the original US claim is a fact. When we screw up in Iraq, which often happens, I can remember few examples in which 'oops' ws the first thing we said. Often the spokesmen simple says that isn't our fault when they don't yet know a damn thing about it. In a fair number of cases, as for example when our helicopter gunship fired into the crowd on Haifa street in Baghdad, we've apparently decided to never admit error at all. After all, who's going to make us?

d1etchek said at March 6, 2005 2:54 PM:

Curiouser and curiouser. Her car does not appear to have any bullet holes in it.

d1etchek said at March 6, 2005 3:30 PM:

Nevermind. Its the car she was kidnapped from.

THe military claims to not know wher ethe car is. Yeah, right.

Hektor said at March 6, 2005 5:26 PM:

The media spin is in full swing (just cruise to some of the other sites). Naturally, in the conspiracy stew that passes for logical dialogue in the international MSM, US troops are being accused of everything but the extinction of the dinosaurs. As I see it, the following are the facts we can deal with at this moment, and we should give our countrymen the benefit of the doubt until more is known:

1. It was night there on the road to Baghdad International (i.e., dark).
2. Terrorists in Baghdad (and other Iraqi cities) often block roads with their own checkpoints, where they stop cars and rob/kidnap vehicle occupanst (don't take my word for it...there's plenty of CNN and al-Jazirah footage that shows insurgents doing this). These terrorists are armed and often fire rounds in the air to make sure you stop. I think Ms. Sgrena was originally captured in this fashion.
3. No word has been released yet on whether or not the Italian intelligence service officers had come to Iraq directly from Italy. If so, they may not have been as familiar with the dangers of approaching a Coalition checkpoint at high speed. Also, we don't know if the Italian government had even told the Coalition authorities that they were going to be bringing Ms. Sgrena out. If they didn't coordinate with the Coalition, then there was no way they could know who was in the vehicle.
4. The vehicle driver was approaching a poorly-lit area, in the dark, and all he sees is someone with a rifle waving a flashlight at him, indicating he should stop. He may not be able to see WHO is motioning him to stop; however, the silhouette of his rifle is probably visible. If not, the muzzle flash probably was. From the perspective of the troops manning the checkpoint, all they see is a fast-approaching car (probably with its interior lights off) that's ignoring their frantic signals. A non-hostile driver who's been living and working there would NOT have done what this car was doing; however, that's exactly what the car bombers do.
5. Ms. Sgrena is in the car, vividly recalls the circumstances of her abduction, and is quite likely very upset at the thought that she may be on the verge of being abducted again. She may be very distracted (and distracting) at this point.
6. Cars that approach checkpoints too fast, in the dark, often have bad intentions...this is a statistical fact. Many US servicemen have died in situations like this, simply because they didn't do what's necessary to protect themselves.

I don't know what the facts will show, but US soldiers don't lounge around checkpoints looking for someone to shoot. It's possible the Italians thought they were encountering some terrorists--if they were unfamiliar with the area and the procedures, they could easily make a mistake. And it's equally possible the Italians were taking evasive action to protect their passenger (they are trained to do this). Evasive action to avoid fire is the same, whether you're a good guy or a bad guy. These troops had split seconds to act, or they might all die, along with a lot of other people who may have been stopped already.

How many of us would allow ourselves to be stopped by unidentified persons on a dark night in some of the rougher areas of US cities? And, if shots are fired, would that make us stop, or speed up? Let's remember that these soldiers come from the same army that, during the invasion of Iraq, witnessed three of its own risk their lives on a shot-swept bridge in Karbala, simply to pull an elderly Iraqi woman out of the line of fire. I'll take the word of men and women like that over the testimony of a known anti-American journalist anytime.


Randall Parker said at March 6, 2005 5:45 PM:


In the conspiracy zone I've come across the following conspiracy theories:

1) The US soldiers were trying to silence her from revealing some great secret. Of course she is free and has no great secrets to divulge.

2) She arranged her own kidnapping to help get Italian troops out of Iraq. Since she is apparently a communist and may even have known her abductors in advance this is not impossible. Though it seems very unlikely.

3) Insurgents shot the Italian agent from a different position along the road to make the Americans look bad.

I think the more likely elements of a true explanation are that:

A) It is hard for drivers to see the legitimate roadblocks because the roadblocks are poorly designed.

B) At the same time the drivers are afraid of insurgents running fake roadblocks.

C) The US soldiers were poorly trained.

D) The roadblocks are not structured to provide the US soldiers sufficient time to identify friend or foe. Imagine, for example, remote control electronic gates to open and close to let cars thru after they have come to a stop.

gcochran said at March 6, 2005 11:40 PM:

I give common sene the benefit of the doubt. I stopped giving US government spokesmen the benfit of the doubt when they started spewing nonsense: when they warned me about the Iraqi nuclear program, which I kenw did not exist. When they warned me about the Iraqi connections to Al-Qaeda, which I knew did not exist. When Wolfie said that we wouldn't trouble with pesky holy cities in Iraq, that there wouldnt be any guerrilla resistance, that we'd have most of out troops out in six months, I knew better. When Don Rumsfeld explained that there wasn't really a guerrilla war in Iraq, that we'd had comparable trouble with that fierce Werewolf resistance in occupied Germany, that Iraq was a lot like post-Revolutionary America - I figured he was both a liar and a fucking loon.

When we fired the entire Iraqi Army, instead of continuing their pittance and keeping them busy with reconstruction, I figured that our fearless leaders had a God-damned death wish.

When the US command sticks to their argument that the wedding party we hosed with lead was really just a bunch of terrorists, even though we found the corpses of a regionally famous wedding singer and his entire band, not to mention a five-hour video of the wedding - I just didn't have the strength to give them the benefit of the doubt. Superman isn't that strong.

The Army is not evil. It is, rather, hopelessly stupid. It's a subtle distinction. As for the Administration, they're the avatars of the god of assholes. They've managed to convince the mnajority of the population of Canada, Germany, Australia and Great Britian that the US is a force for evil in the world, and they're damned proud of it. They're worse than bad - they're fools.

Stephen said at March 7, 2005 3:24 AM:

Four things that I've read that haven't been mentioned here so far: the car had already passed through a number of checkpoints on the way to the airport (makes sense); the killed negotiator was an old hand in Iraq - he'd negotiated a number of prior hostage releases (makes sense); the car was riddled with 400+ shells (probably); the journalist said that a soldier shined his torch into the car and then the firing began, implying the car was stopped (doubtfull, because there were survivors). All of these are from different sources and all are hearsay.

My guess is that the car wasn't doing anything unusual, but a jumpy teenage soldier didn't like the look of something and decided to open fire, and everyone else in the squad joined in. Entirely understandable - after all, western soldiers are trained to take the initiative and the passive manning of a checkpoint goes against all that training. I cannot imagine how nerveracking it must be to stand there as car after car drives past, any one of which might explode. Not trying to justify it - if the soldiers opened fire because of nerves they should be court-martialled.

I have two questions though, (1) is it worthwhile having roving checkpoints on the road between the city and the airport, when presumably there's a safe (from the soldiers perspective) permanent checkpoint at either end of the road. (2) if security firms are reporting nervous shooting by US soldiers, then how many Iraqi's are being killed everyday without anyone in the west noticing?

One thing I've noticed about US forces - they seem to have their weapons on auto by default, whereas other western armies see better discipline in having weapons set to single.

Derek Copold said at March 7, 2005 12:32 PM:

"As for the Administration, they're the avatars of the god of assholes."

LOL. Worth repeating.

administration shill said at March 7, 2005 4:27 PM:

"One thing I've noticed about US forces - they seem to have their weapons on auto by default, whereas other western armies see better discipline in having weapons set to single."

I'm sure that's from your massive experience of being in multiple warzones with US troops....


Stephen said at March 7, 2005 6:33 PM:

A fair point Shill, but not entirely useful in a blog discussion that is mainly speculative.

Misteri said at March 10, 2005 7:24 PM:

If the Italians say the car wasnt speeding, that means it was only going twice the limit.

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