CPJ urges Rumsfeld to probe U.S. strike that killed civilians, including TV reporter

Dear Mr. Secretary,

The Committee to Protect Journalists is gravely concerned about the U.S. military strike on Haifa Street in Baghdad on September 12, which killed at least 13 civilians and injured another 100 civilians.

Among the civilian casualties were three journalists who had rushed onto the streets that morning to cover the fighting, the heaviest in Baghdad in many weeks. Mazen al-Tumeizi, a reporter for the Dubai-based satellite news channel Al-Arabiya, was killed; Seif Fouad, a cameraman for Reuters news agency, and Ghaith Abdul Ahad, a freelance photographer working for Getty Images, were injured.


We call on you to ensure that a comprehensive and transparent investigation is conducted, including an examination of whether this attack may have violated the principles of international law that prohibit the use of indiscriminate fire. We also call on you to make the results of the investigation public.

The civilians, including al-Tumeizi, were killed on the morning of September 12, when U.S. helicopters fired missiles at a disabled U.S. Bradley fighting vehicle, according to eyewitness testimony and international news reports.

Al-Tumeizi was taping a report about 20 meters from the disabled Bradley when a U.S. missile hit the vehicle, killing the journalist. Dozens of other civilians who had gathered around the Bradley were killed or injured in the series of strikes by two U.S. helicopters. Some press reports said the helicopters may also have used machine gun fire. Video aired by Al-Arabiya showed that the explosion behind al-Tumeizi caused him to double over and scream, "I'm dying, I'm dying." He died moments later, the Dubai-based station reported.

U.S. military officials have provided differing justifications for opening fire. Initially, military spokesman Lt. Col. Steven Boylan told The Associated Press that a U.S. helicopter fired at or near the disabled Bradley to prevent looters from stripping equipment. But in subsequent statements, officials said that the U.S. helicopters struck after they came under insurgent fire. A military statement noted that "[a]s the helicopters flew over the burning Bradley they received small-arms fire from the insurgents in vicinity of the vehicle." It added: "Clearly within the rules of engagement, the helicopters returned fire destroying some anti-Iraqi forces in the vicinity of the Bradley."

On September 15, Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, commander of U.S. troops in Baghdad, and his deputy, Col. Jim McConville, told journalists at a press conference that the U.S. helicopters fired several missiles, one of which hit the stranded Bradley. According to The New York Times, the officials said that the U.S. helicopters used force only after they were fired on from the crowd but also suggested that the helicopters might have fired on the vehicle to prevent the insurgents from seizing its communications equipment.

Testimony from eyewitnesses, as well as press accounts from the scene, contradict military accounts and raise troubling questions about the helicopter crew's decision to open fire in a situation that appears to have put the lives of civilians, among them members of the media, unnecessarily at risk.

According to an eyewitness interviewed by CPJ in Baghdad and various media accounts, the helicopter strikes occurred approximately one hour or more after the insurgents had attacked the Bradley and its crew had evacuated. Eyewitnesses said that no fighting or shooting was occurring in the area at the time of the U.S. attack. Video of al-Tumeizi's death, shot by Reuters and viewed by CPJ, shows no indications of armed Iraqis in the area, or of armed fire coming from the scene before the explosion that killed him.

We remind you that international humanitarian law prohibits indiscriminate military attacks and those that are disproportionate to any military advantage gained and recklessly endanger civilians, including members of the press. To date, at least eight journalists have been killed by fire from U.S. forces in Iraq. In CPJ's view, nearly all of those deaths were avoidable. The accounts of eyewitnesses to last week's incident raise serious questions about whether the use of fire by U.S. forces was indiscriminate or disproportionate to any military advantage.

We await your response and the results of your investigation.


Sincerely,

Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director

September 24, 2004 12:00 PM ET |

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