Protecting Iraqi civilians: a key issue in event of military action

By Phyllis McIntosh, Washington File Special Correspondent
Washington - As America prepares for possible war with Iraq, serious attention must be paid to protecting the civilian population from the brunt of military action and from reprisals, ethnic infighting, and other human rights abuses that could follow, according to a panel of experts convened by the Brookings Institution, a private policy research organization.

At a forum on February 11, seven panelists discussed where abuses are most likely to occur and the capacity of U.S. armed forces, international agencies, and aid organizations to protect Iraqi civilians.

No one doubts the ability of the U.S. military to win a war against Iraq, said moderator Roberta Cohen, a senior fellow at Brookings. But if the United States earns the animosity of the Iraqi people, support for that operation and the prospects for peace may be jeopardized, she said.

The responsibility of armed forces to minimize risk to civilians both during hostilities and during postwar occupation is clearly outlined in the Geneva Conventions. Panelist Christophe Girod of the International Committee of the Red Cross reviewed the basic principles of the convention, such as "distinction" and "proportionality," which state that belligerents must distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians and ensure that attacks against military targets do not cause excessive civilian damage.

Girod noted that 41 articles in the Geneva Conventions spell out how occupying forces must safeguard the civilian population through such actions as maintaining law and order, ensuring access to food and medical supplies, and providing special protection for women and children.

The risk to civilians will likely be much higher in a war with Iraq than in the previous Gulf War, because of the possibility that Saddam Hussein will use weapons of mass destruction and place military targets in such places as mosques, hospitals, and schools, said Kenneth H. Bacon, president of Refugees International.

While the responsibility for such acts would fall on Iraqi generals and leaders, the United States would likely get some of the blame for civilian casualties, he said. U.S. forces can do their part to limit risk to civilians by focusing as much as possible on targets outside of urban areas and restricting use of cluster bombs and especially landmines, "which produce casualties long after the fighting is over and I think would poison the Iraqi people against their American liberators," Bacon added.

"Probably most worrisome," Bacon said, is the possibility of a ground war in and around Iraqi cities, but "there are ways to fight in cities and still hold down civilian casualties."

One solution, he said, is to cordon off areas and take time to establish sanctuaries for civilians. Another is to spare essential services. "Shut off the water instead of blowing up the water system." Finally, he said, it is most important to have in place a plan to provide immediate food, shelter, and medical care.

The experts agreed that civilians may face the greatest risk from what panelist Larry Sampler, a consultant to the Institute for Defense Analyses and USAID, called "post-conflict violence." Included in this catch-all category are massacres, assaults, reprisals, ethnic infighting and ordinary crime stemming from general lawlessness.

Victor Tanner, a former aid worker now with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, citied three geographic areas with high potential for conflict. Of greatest concern, he said, is the city of Kirkuk, a fertile and oil-rich area that Saddam Hussein has sought to "Arabize" by brutally expelling native Kurds, Turkmen, and Assyrians.

"If a security vacuum were to occur either just before or just after departure of Iraqi forces, it could create tensions among the various groups," Tanner said.

The second area of concern is Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown. "Here one could imagine groups opposed to the regime converging on Tikrit or on elements of Iraqi armed forces withdrawing from the area," Tanner said. "Either way it could become a focus of tension and perhaps violence."

Finally, Tanner said Baghdad is at risk, because it is a city organized into distinct ethnic neighborhoods. "Political tensions could degenerate quickly into communal tension," he said.

Also vulnerable are the Shiite areas in southern Iraq, where violence could occur between the Shiites and remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime or among various Shiite groups themselves.

Iraqis who might be targeted for wide scale retribution include the more than one million members of the Ba'ath Party, Tanner said, as well as Arab settlers around Kirkuk and Christian Arabs who are regarded as having close ties to the Saddam Hussein regime.

Tanner stressed that despite the pent-up pain and resentment caused by the current regime, civil war is not inevitable. "I believe there are many leaders in both the North and the South who are committed to working together," he said.

The panel agreed that it will fall to U.S. or coalition military forces to impose order and prevent violence in the first days and weeks after hostilities end. To do so effectively, the military must understand the dynamics of the situation, Sampler said.

"In my experience, post-conflict violence is a form of hysteria in which ordinarily reasonable people are prone to do things they wouldn't normally do," Sampler said. But he added, there is typically a pause in violence immediately after the fighting stops.

"People are worried about physiological needs like food and water or the safety of their immediate family. Then they begin to focus on establishing a sense of belonging, whether to a religious or ethnic group or to a gang. Last, there is a need for self-assertion, a need to do something," and that can lead to violence, Sampler said.

"It is up to the interveners to seize the opportunity and understand that there's a limited period of time during which they need to provide strong leadership and security," Sampler added. "If they provide that in the short term, rational behavior can return." But the military is at a disadvantage in trying to deal with political and social tensions, other panelists pointed out. U.S. Army Major General William Nash spoke of a phenomenon he personally experienced in Iraq after the Gulf War and in Bosnia.

Soldiers, he said, quickly go from being "very smart" about understanding the military situation to a "near blindness" about non-military matters. "Military units on the ground will have a very difficult time understanding the political dynamics taking place. It's not their business, but it will be thrust on them," Nash said.

Sandra Mitchell of the International Rescue Committee noted that as Iraq's internal security framework collapses after the fall of Saddam Hussein, U.S. or coalition forces will have to be ready to engage in immediate policing action not only to maintain order but also to ensure basic rights for political prisoners and common criminals. Military units will have to deal with arrest procedures, management of detention facilities, and access to detainees by counsel, family members, and rights groups, she said.

"Building trust and confidence is going to be up to the very first ground forces the Iraqi people have contact with," Mitchell said. "They can't wait until they set up some stable administration." To garner the trust of the people, she stressed, those forces are going to have to get out of their heavily armed convoys and meet with local leaders.

One of the most important tools for preventing post-conflict violence is a well-planned information campaign, Larry Sampler emphasized. Interveners need to "use an information campaign proactively to make sure people are focused on what they should focus on and reactively to disabuse the rumors and lies and innuendos that promote so much of this violence," he said.

It will be the job of the media to serve as watchdog during and after a war, said Roy Gutman, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and chief diplomatic correspondent for Newsweek. It will be difficult for reporters to sort truth from lies, because Saddam Hussein will likely stop at nothing in attempts to shift blame for war crimes and to foster unrest. As a starting point for investigation, reporters should closely monitor the Iraqi media, Gutman advised. Journalists, he added, need a "box of tools" which should include the Rules of War, so they can familiarize themselves with what is legal and what is not and what constitutes a legitimate military target.

All of the panelists stressed the importance of the military working in close collaboration with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as humanitarian and rights groups, and with USAID and U.N. agencies. They expressed frustration with the realization that neither the NGOs nor the U.N. will be of much assistance in filling the security vacuum following a war.

"This is not like Afghanistan, where there were hundreds of NGOs that knew the population and its needs," Mitchell said. "We've had years of sanctions that have prevented NGOs from entering Iraq."

Aid groups that do come in immediately after a regime change will be severely restricted by security concerns and the ongoing threat that weapons of mass destruction may be discharged, she added.

It is critical, the experts agreed, that serious discussions take place among all the players -- the military, NGOs, the United Nations -- about how to deal with a post-war Iraq. As Mitchell summed it up, the security vacuum after Saddam Hussein falls could give rise to revenge and lawlessness that will quickly spiral out of control.

"Once it begins," she said, "the cycle will be very, very difficult to stop."

(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: