U.S. Army reservist Paul Rieckhoff volunteered for Baghdad duty in 2003 and served as a First Lieutenant (Platoon leader, 3rd Infantry division) in Iraq from March 2003 to March 2004. After his tour, Rieckhoff moved to New York City and founded Operation Truth , a nonpartisan soldiers rights group thats harshly criticized the Bush administration for short-sighted battle and reconstruction plans particularly a lack of supplies, armor, and personnel that it cites as grave threats to soldiers safety: "The military is still very much playing catch-up on what they need to properly conduct this occupation. Our solders are very much overextended." While in Iraq, Rieckhoff says he manned countless checkpoints: We did these nightly for half a year.
Innumerable checkpoints of various stripes permanent, temporary, or ad hoc - dot the Iraqi landscape, says Rieckhoff. Theres been a lot of talk that Iraqis arent familiar with the process. I dont think thats true at all. Checkpoints are very much a part of occupied Iraq now. Most anyone whos driven on the streets in Iraq is familar with the process. He acknowledges, though, that the specific rules of engagement aren't made public, and says "it's operational security. Its almost equvialent to revealing troop movements or specific tactics. I wouldnt tell you where the weaknesses on our Humvees are, either.
Most checkpoints are well marked, says Rieckhoff, with visible and colorful signs in Arabic and English posted from 400 meters away. As approaching cars get closer, signs increase: You see orange cones and constantine wire before you even see soldiers, he says. Once a car comes in view of the soldiers manning the checkpoint, recruits follow a standard escalation of violence protocol that varies little among the various coalition outfits in Iraq. For U.S. soldiers, checkpoint training is a standard component of basic deployment training, like operating a machine gun, or flying a helicopter.
Ideally, soldiers first call out verbal warnings, then employ hand signals. You can wave up your hand, or hold up your fist in the Iraqi signal for wait,which is putting your fingers together and turning them upward says Rieckhoff. Typically, the signs work. Were all pretty well-versed on what communication will work well with Iraqis. Its not like this is the first person to fly through the checkpoint. If the hand signals dont slow the car down, soldiers use flashlights, and then fire warning shots using small caliber weapons like M16s. If nothing works, soldiers fire directly at the vehicle. Stopping the vehicle is the catastrophic option. Its the absolute last resort, says Rieckhoff, noting though that once they start, theres no turning back. If you let your weapon go, youre committed to stopping that vehicle, and you shoot until it stops."
The problem, says Rieckhoff, is that checkpoint situations are rarely ideal. Theres a million and one variables. Rough or hilly terrain, curves in the road that make warning signs less visible, drunk or ill drivers careening toward the checkpoint, someone speeding to a hospital all make the soldiers jobs more difficult. And vehicles on the move are typically going fast: He notes that a car going 30 mph can qualify as "speeding" through the checkpoint. "If they're within 200 meters of the checkpoint, and they're going 30 miles an hour, that's fast." Ideally, he agrees, the soldiers should run through the warning steps in sequence. "But if a car is coming at you at 30 miles an hour, how fast can you do all those things?"
Not to mention that for the soldiers - unusually exposed, typically standing in the middle of a road - the greatest fear is a car bomb (the use of which are on the rise), and the first priority their own safety. The priority is always self-defense. Any coalition soldier will always have the right to defend themselves. And ultimately, its usually a very young soldier making the decision. They have a tremendous amount of responsibility, and this (situation with Sgrena) reveals a lot about the difficulties of dealing with the insurgency and this grey area that coalition soldiers, and Iraqis as well, have to deal with every day. This is not Falluja, where all the civilians are gone, and you're just fighting the enemy. It's a guerilla war. Every day, you try to wrestle with who is an enemy and who is not, if someone is running with an apple or a hand grenade, if a reporter is holding a camera or an RPG. Obviously, no one wants to kill civilians. But it's the nature of this type of warfare, and of this occupation, that these soldiers have to ratchet up this kind of violence very quickly. It's obviously horrible, but these troops are forced to make decisions in a split second." Is everyone an enemy? Sadly, yes. "You have to view everyone as a possible enemy. That's the bottom line reality. You can start out viewing them all as enemies and hope theyre not - but if you start out viewing everyone as friendly and wait until they prove theyre not, you'll wind up dead."
Marine Reserve Cororal Yevgeny Ulitsky, 23, was stationed in Iraq from March - August 2003, when checkpoints "were almost a daily routine." He's even blunter about the procedure: "The procedure is, if you believe there's any danger to yourself or your unit, you have every right to open fire." Hand signals and flashlights are common warning signs, he agrees - in fact, soldiers who forsake such warning signs are subject to prosecution, and Ulitsky says it simply "would not happen" that soldiers would skip the initial signs - but other elements of the process are subject to commanders' whims. "Some units say you should have warning shots," notes Ulitsky, "but my unit was specifically told not to fire any warning shots. That was the commander's decision." The policy, he readily concedes, "is not a good policy. But considering all the insurgency activity in Iraq, and all the car bombings going on, personally I can't think of a better one."