Today's date:
Winter 2003


Protect Civilians First

Peter Bouckaert is a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Arbil, Iraq During a dinner in Iraqi Kurdistan last month, the elderly matron of the family I was dining with urged my interpreter to translate her question. She was reluctant, but finally did. Was it true, she wanted to know, what people were saying? That the United States would release a gas in Baghdad to put the populace to sleep, then snatch Saddam and his henchmen without the need for bombs?

"If only it could be so easy," I replied, laughing. Her face fell. She had clearly been clinging to the hope that a bloodless coup was possible, one in which her many relatives in Baghdad would escape unscathed. It's not just Iraqis who don't want to face the very real jeopardy the people of Iraq will face in the event of US military action there. Debate in America has focused on polarizing questions about the propriety of preemption, the wisdom of forcing regime change and the strength of the evidence concerning Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. But whether one favors or opposes war (my organization, Human Rights Watch, is neutral on that issue), it is equally important to consider the grave dangers that the Iraqi people could face once war starts, and to develop workable strategies to minimize those dangers.

The risk of civilian casualties from the fighting itself is likely to be particularly high in Iraq. Saddam Hussein will almost certainly attempt to draw the US into an urban battle, one in which Iraqi civilians are used as human shields. Anyone who remembers the intense fighting in Jenin several months ago, or the bloody battle of Mogadishu depicted in Black Hawk Down, realizes what dangers urban warfare represents. In addition, despite significant technological improvements over the past decade, the Pentagon continues to make deadly mistakes from the air, often by relying on inaccurate intelligence. Finally, the US willingness to target and destroy civilian infrastructure such as water treatment facilities is likely to cause many casualties. During the first Gulf War, the practice caused more civilian deaths than the bombs themselves.

In Iraq, civilian casualties caused by US military actions would likely be only a part of the picture. The greatest threat to the Iraqi people could well come from the Iraqi army. The direct civilian death toll of allied military action during the Gulf War, Kosovo and Afghanistan combined is dwarfed by the estimated 30,000 who died during Saddam's repression of the 1991 uprisings, or by the estimated 100,000 Kurds killed in Saddam's genocidal Anfal campaign in the late 1980s. Saddam Hussein is the only known head of state who has used chemical weapons against his own people, as well as against Iranian troops, and he is likely to do so again in a battle for his life.

In Kurdistan last month, the risks to civilians were very clear. My driver took me out to the last house in the dusty Iraqi Kurdish village of Kalak, the last outpost before the border. From the roof of the house, I looked out at Iraqi army troops that have taken up positions on a line of hills just a few hundred meters away.

Iraq's Kurds, armed with little more than machine guns, stand no chance against the well-equipped Iraqi troops on the hills. The Iraqi troops are restrained from attacking by the threat of US retaliation. This restraint would be removed if the US decides to attack Iraq. It is people like the villagers of Kalak who would face, almost without defense, the wrath of a cornered Saddam.

If the US initiates a war with Iraq, it will have an obligation to do what it can to protect vulnerable Shia and Kurdish populations from attack. In Kosovo, NATO bombers could do little from the air to protect civilians as the Serbian forces intensified their killing spree in response to the bombing. The US cannot allow a repeat of that tragic experience.

The safety of the civilian population of Iraq will be greatly complicated by the fact that there is only a limited humanitarian presence in the country, and that the agencies present are subject to the whims of Baghdad. In Iraqi Kurdistan, I saw almost no preparation for a humanitarian crisis or chemical weapon attacks—partly because Baghdad controls the flow of humanitarian aid to the north. Fleeing civilians may also face closed borders in the region blocking access to safety. In 1991, tens of thousands of fleeing Kurds got stuck on the wrong side of the closed Turkish border, some of them freezing to death. Any planning for military action requires the development of a well-funded humanitarian plan, and pressuring regional governments to commit to keeping their borders open.

War in Iraq could also cause furious inter-ethnic fighting and massive retribution against perceived supporters of Saddam's government. During my three weeks in Iraqi Kurdistan, I met with dozens of Kurdish and Turcoman families recently expelled by the Iraqi government from the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and now living in miserable conditions in Kurdistan. The Kurds can be expected to return en masse to Kirkuk at the first opportunity—and they could well decide to retaliate against the Arabs Saddam brought in to replace them. There is also likely to be a fierce—and perhaps violent—competition among Arabs, Kurds and possibly Turkish troops over control of the city.

As the experience of 1991 shows, members of Saddam's Ba'ath party, his Tikrit clan and his hated security services will face severe retaliation in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam. To prevent bloodbaths, the US needs to make absolutely clear to its potential allies among Saddam's opposition that abuses by them will be punished. Such a commitment was not forthcoming in Afghanistan, where the Northern Alliance troops in Mazar-i-Sharif killed hundreds of captured combatants without much worry about being brought to justice.

Finally, experience teaches us that the fall of a government creates a security gap. In Afghanistan, the failure of the US to immediately fill that gap allowed the warlords to force their way into positions of control, and allowed mass looting and similar abuses to take place. In Kosovo, the victorious Kosovo Liberation Army immediately began killing Serbian and Roma civilians whom they suspected of collaboration with Milosevic. Bringing stability, security and accountable governance to Iraq is a major, long-term commitment, but one that the US must shoulder when it embarks on such an intervention.

The Bush administration appears to be planning for a more ambitious role in Iraq than in Afghanistan-including the possibility of a long-term military occupation of the country. In that planning, the security of the civilian population, particularly in the chaotic early days following Saddam's fall, must be a paramount US objective.