When Is a Civilian Not a Civilian? Iraq's Leaders Say All the People Will Defend the Homeland. So Is Anybody a Fair Target? (War/Baghdad)

By Hilsum, Lindsey | New Statesman (1996), April 7, 2003 | Go to article overview

When Is a Civilian Not a Civilian? Iraq's Leaders Say All the People Will Defend the Homeland. So Is Anybody a Fair Target? (War/Baghdad)


Hilsum, Lindsey, New Statesman (1996)


Ikhlas Faiq was injured on 28 March when a missile fell on the market where she was shopping for her family. When her small son reached up to kiss her in her hospital bed, she sobbed from distress mixed with relief to be alive. Ikhlas is an innocent civilian--no question about that.

But what about 20-year-old Jassem in the next bed? A secondary school student, he is also the kind of young man who might choose or be coerced into joining one of the Iraqi militias currently attacking American and British soldiers. Or he might have in the past--not now, because his arm was amputated after he, too, was hit by shrapnel when the missile hit alShula market. Was he aninnocentcivilian?

The British and American governments said they came to liberate the people of Iraq and bring them humanitarian aid. But now they suspect that Iraqi civilians are really soldiers because the men attacking them are in civilian clothes. "The enemy we're fighting is a bit different from the one we war-gamed against," marvelled Lieutenant General William Wallace, commander of the US army ground forces.

The Iraqi government makes maximum propaganda from civilian casualties such as those in al-Shula market place, even though the deaths may have been caused by rebounding Iraqi anti-aircraft fire. They blame the Americans for "targeting civilians". Then they say that all Iraqis will fight to defend their homeland from the invaders, which turns civilians into combatants.

"Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are carrying weapons," said the information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf. "Rumsfeld says soldiers are putting on civilian clothes. He doesn't understand--an Iraqi maybe a schoolmaster or an engineer, but he's still an Iraqi and he'll fight against the invader." In the next breath, Sahaf condemned President Bush as a war criminal for causing civilian deaths. To him, there is no contradiction.

The following day, American troops at a checkpoint near Najaf, fearing a repeat of an incident in which four US soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber at a similar checkpoint, shot at a car that refused to stop. Seven women and children were killed.

According to Human Rights Watch, under international law, the Iraqis could be guilty of "perfidy"--killing the enemy by convincing them that the attackers are non-combatants. "Perfidy poses particular dangers because it blurs the distinction between enemy soldiers, who are a valid target, and civilians and other non-combatants, who are not," it says. "Soldiers fearful of perfidious attacks are more likely to fire upon civilians and surrendering soldiers, however unlawfully."

Are the civilians voluntarily defending their homeland, as the Iraqi government maintains, or have they been forced to fight? In the months leading up to the conflict, the Ba'ath Party distributed thousands of Kalashnikovs to tribal leaders. …

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When Is a Civilian Not a Civilian? Iraq's Leaders Say All the People Will Defend the Homeland. So Is Anybody a Fair Target? (War/Baghdad)
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