by Jim Lobe
In the wake of the apparent extrajudicial execution by a U.S. soldier of a wounded Iraqi prisoner in Fallujah, caught on videotape by NBC, Amnesty International is calling on the U.S. authorities to issue "unequivocal orders" for the proper treatment of unarmed or wounded insurgents.
The appeal, issued by Amnesty from its London headquarters Tuesday, followed a statement issued Friday by the world’s best-known human rights organization, in which it said it was "deeply concerned that the rules of war protecting civilians and combatants have been violated in the current fighting between U.S. and Iraqi forces and insurgents" in and around Fallujah
The earlier statement blamed all sides for possible war crimes, noting that 20 Iraqi medical staff and dozens of other citizens were killed when a missile hit a clinic in Fallujah during the opening hours of the U.S.-led assault on the city, which had been controlled by insurgents since last April.
Amnesty said the origin of the missile was unknown, but that all sides were jeopardizing the lives of civilian noncombatants in the city. It noted at the same time that U.S. military spokespersons had provided estimates of the number of deaths among an estimated 2,000 insurgents who were believed to have been holed up in Fallujah as the assault began, but not of civilian casualties.
Reports from the city, virtually all of which had been secured by U.S. and Iraqi government forces by Tuesday, were divided as to whether the estimated 1,000–1,200 insurgents that U.S. commanders claimed had been killed in the fighting included civilians and, if so, how many. Some sources claimed that hundreds of noncombatants were included in the death toll, despite the fact that as many as 250,000 of the city’s 300,000 inhabitants had fled Fallujah in advance.
U.S. forces suffered 37 dead in the week-long assault, as well as another 320 wounded.
Lt. Gen. John Sattler, the commanding officer of the First Marine Expeditionary Force, announced Tuesday that he had ordered a full investigation into possible war crimes after one of his troops was filmed by an "embedded" NBC camera crew Saturday shooting at close range an apparently injured and unarmed insurgent who was being held inside a mosque that had reportedly been the site of a fierce firefight the day before.
The scene, which has been broadcast here and around the world, depicted Marines approaching several injured men who had apparently been left there from the previous day.
Narrating the video, NBC correspondent Kevin Sites reported that one of the Marines noticed that one of the injured was breathing. "He’s f****** faking he’s dead," the Marine shouts, raising his rifle and firing a single shot in the man’s direction. At that point, the video as broadcast on U.S. television goes black, but an unidentified voice is heard saying, "He’s dead now."
In a report that accompanied the footage, Sites said, "The prisoner did not appear to be armed or threatening in any way."
Under international law, military forces have an obligation to protect and provide necessary medical attention to wounded insurgents who are "hors de combat" – or outside of combat – that is, those who no longer pose a threat.
"The deliberate shooting of unarmed and wounded fighters who pose no immediate threat is a war crime under international law," said Amnesty, who stressed that the U.S. authorities should immediately investigate the case and hold perpetrators responsible.
Under the circumstances, the only defense would be that the Marine had reason to believe that the insurgent was armed and posed a threat, in which case the shooting would constitute an act of self-defense.
For his part, Sattler insisted, "We follow the law of armed conflict and hold ourselves to a high standard of accountability. The facts of this case will be thoroughly pursued to make an informed decision and to protect the rights of all persons involved."
The military command also announced that the unnamed Marine who fired the shot had been taken off the battlefield and could face a court martial depending on the results of the investigation.
Amnesty stressed that the investigation should be open and transparent and that the findings should be made public.
It noted that it had already called on the U.S. authorities to investigate another Nov. 11 incident, reported on Britain’s Channel Four News, in which a U.S. soldier appeared to have fired one shot in the direction of a wounded insurgent who was off-screen. The soldier then walked away and said, "He’s gone."
Coincidentally, the Pentagon announced Tuesday that an Army lieutenant has been charged with premeditated murder in a similar incident that occurred in August in Baghdad’s Sadr City. Two other soldiers had already been charged with murder over the same incident.
"Unequivocal orders for the proper treatment of unarmed and wounded insurgents must be issued or reinforced to all U.S. and Iraqi military and civilian personnel," Amnesty said.
An analyst at Human Rights Watch (HRW) said his group was also concerned about the incidents. "If there is a general sense that perhaps these rules can be trampled, whether it is this case, whether at Abu Ghraib [prison], or in a different context at Guantanamo, in all of these places we see the rules being ignored," Steve Crawshaw of HRW’s London office told the Voice of America.
Jim Lobe is Inter Press Service’s correspondent in Washington, DC.