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Killing of civilians in Iraq highlights stress on troops

Repeated guerrilla attacks may play role, specialists say

WASHINGTON -- Before the alleged killings of civilians by Marines in Haditha, Iraq, at least nine other US troops had been convicted on charges related to the killings of unarmed Iraqis in five separate cases, some under circumstances similar to those of the Marines in Haditha.

A Globe review of the nine cases that have yielded convictions in military courts showed that most involved soldiers who had been exposed to frequent guerrilla attacks and feared for themselves or their comrades, a situation many psychologists have said makes soldiers more prone to disregard laws of war that prohibit targeting civilians.

One soldier, Staff Sergeant Johnny Horne Jr. , was sentenced to three years in prison for executing an unarmed teenager who had been wounded in crossfire during fighting in Baghdad's volatile Sadr City neighborhood in August 2004, according to military documents.

``I fired a shot into his head, and his attempts to breathe ceased," he testified to a military judge in December 2004.

Also among the convictions, according to military records and court proceedings reviewed by the Globe: Two soldiers sentenced to prison for the premeditated murder of two unarmed civilians immediately after their patrol unit had escaped sniper fire and ambushes in Sadr City in August 2004 -- a sequence similar to the Haditha case, in which a group of Marines allegedly killed up to 24 civilians last November after becoming enraged when a roadside bombing killed one of the Marines' comrades.

Like the Third Battalion of the First Marine Regiment in Haditha, the unit involved in both Sadr City cases -- the First Battalion of the 41st Infantry Division of the Army National Guard -- had served multiple tours of duty in Iraq, thereby increasing the kinds of pressures that psychologists say can lead to attacks on civilians.

But none of the earlier cases prompted the kind of sweeping reassessment of Pentagon procedures that has followed news of the Haditha killings. Last week, the Pentagon said it would review all its training procedures and ordered all of the 150,000 coalition troops serving in Iraq to complete two- to four-hour refresher course in ``core values."

Despite the Pentagon's efforts, some specialists said, the additional training is unlikely to reduce the stresses of serving in Iraq. After repeated exposure to guerrilla warfare -- and watching their colleagues die -- some soldiers stop distinguishing between combatants and ordinary Iraqis, psychologists and other specialists said, both out of fear of attack from insurgents hiding among the civilians and an often misguided belief that the civilians helped hide the insurgents.

Now, with many units having served multiple tours of duty, the risk of those kinds of retribution is rising, some specialists said.

``The worst thing you can do with soldiers is give them repeated war experiences," said Aine Donovan , a former Naval Academy professor and now director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College. ``With too many of the same people going back into a war situation, you're significantly increasing probability of improprieties taking place."

Referring to the Haditha allegations, she said that ``in the fog of war, in a combat situation, there are lots of psychological issues taking place. These combat-weary soldiers view the roadside bombs [as] violating just-war theory and just snapped."

The news of the Haditha investigation was followed last week by reports that prosecutors are expected to soon file murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy charges against seven Marines and one Navy corpsman in the death of an Iraqi civilian who was allegedly dragged out of his house west of Baghdad and shot to death in April.

That Marine unit -- the Third Battalion of the Fifth Marine Regiment -- was also serving its third tour in Iraq, though it is unclear how many of the soldiers involved in the killing had been part of all the tours.

Pentagon leaders note that despite the stresses of multiple tours, the vast majority of troops observe the laws of armed conflict and protect civilians on the battlefield.

But the nature of the Iraq insurgency presents unique psychological challenges to soldiers, acknowledged Brigadier General Donald Campbell, chief of staff of Multinational Forces Iraq.

He told reporters on Friday that the primary mental challenge comes down to this: ``Who is a combatant and who is a civilian?" The need to differentiate between friend and foe -- often in seconds -- leads to ``stress, fear, isolation, and in some cases they are just upset," Campbell said. ``They see their buddies getting blown up on occasion, and they could snap."

The situation described by Campbell fits some of the cases that have resulted in convictions. In one case, a soldier executed a handcuffed Iraqi herder after a search for insurgents in the surrounding area. The soldier testified that he saw the herder, Muhamad Husain Kadir , lunge at a fellow soldier.

In two other cases, soldiers executed Iraqis who were already seriously wounded by crossfire; in both cases, the soldiers argued they were putting the injured Iraqis out of their misery. The courts did not accept the soldiers' explanations.

Other convictions involved soldiers who failed to stop their comrades from killing civilians or tried to cover up the misdeeds of their comrades when interviewed by military investigators.

Though the nine convictions appear to be the only fully resolved cases involving the killing of Iraqi civilians who were not already prisoners -- as in the Abu Ghraib scandal -- Pentagon officials said last week they are investigating three other cases involving wrongful deaths of Iraqi civilians, but offered no details.

And some specialists are warning that as soldiers serve ever-longer tours in the midst of guerrilla fighting, the chances of additional such killings go up.

A research paper written in early 2005 by Army Major Peter Kilner, an infantry officer and military ethicist, suggested that soldiers -- especially those obliged to use deadly force in combat situations -- can only take so much combat stress in Iraq-like conditions before they reach the breaking point.

``American soldiers and Marines are doing a lot of killing in the global war on terror," Kilner wrote. ``The symptoms of those that have killed in combat -- as part of an atrocity or legitimate activity -- are significantly different from those who have not killed. Those who reported they had killed were much more likely to report having done something in the military that they will never tell, to have violent outbursts, to have intrusive nightmares, and to abuse alcohol."

He warned that the longer the conflict drags on, the more that discipline on the battlefield will fray.

The number of soldiers lashing out because of psychological scars, he wrote, ``will likely increase as soldiers experience multiple combat tours."

Bender can be reached at

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