The Washington Post carried a dispatch from Iraq last Friday that is not for the faint of heart. Anthony Shadid told the macabre story of the death of Sabah Kerbul in the northern village of Thuluya. In the pre-dawn hours, his executioners led him out “behind a house girded with fig trees, vineyards and orange groves.” The first man aimed an AK-47 and shot him in the leg and torso. The second fired three shots; at least one struck Kerbul in the head, killing him.
The kicker: The triggermen were Kerbul’s father and brother, and the story was largely sympathetic. Had they not killed him, villagers threatened to tear the whole family limb from limb. Kerbul was suspected of being the informant who ratted out rocket-toting saboteurs of a U.S. tank patrol. The Americans responded by killing some 27 Iraqis and temporarily rounding up several hundred suspects.
U.S. spokesmen were admirably frank — perhaps too frank — about the death of Iraqi informants. While the military will pay good money for vital intelligence, it has neither the manpower nor the will to protect the tipsters. That is, inform at your own risk.
Easy for them to say. For some reason — easy cash, hatred for the old regime, a chance to curry favor with the new rulers or settle old scores — thousands of informants are helping U.S. forces to root out resistance, to avoid ambushes, and to find old Iraqi bigwigs and send them to hell. This intelligence has been so effective that guerrillas have started trying to staunch the flow by targeting the tattle tales.
I’d recommend that the military take some action, to announce that these vigilante type reprisals will not be tolerated, but then the brass seem to have one-upped what anybody had expected in the show-of-force department. A minor flap followed another story in the Post last week. It revealed that the Army had detained the wife and daughter of an Iraqi lieutenant general and left him a note saying that he’d better turn himself in if he wanted them released. He surrendered the next day.
This skirted ever so close to a war crime. Kidnapping was outlawed under the Geneva Conventions at the tail end of the first half of the 20th century, and has been considered a no-no under various Just War theories for some time now, as it violates the important distinction between combatants and noncombatants. The official story is that the wife and child were being “detained” as part of a legitimate intelligence operation, when someone decided to make it a twofer and see if they couldn’t bluff the husband and father out into the open — and it worked.
Because the lieutenant general surrendered quickly, we’ll never know if the child and woman would have been held indefinitely, but that may be the whole point. One doubts the Army would’ve announced it was holding hostages. Rather, this incident was part of something much larger, including thousands of temporary detentions and hundreds of military raids. The point is to send a message, to Iraq and the world at large, that the U.S. military will do whatever it takes to pacify Iraq. Apparently, winning the peace will be more complicated than anyone imagined.
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