Found this article in this week's army times.

April 04, 2005

Fair warning
For troops manning checkpoints in Iraq, deadly force is allowed but a last resort

By Gina Cavallaro
Times staff writer

RAMADI, Iraq — Military checkpoints in and around this city are hard to miss.

They usually are marked by a long line of traffic inching toward clearly defined areas and a strong military presence, mostly Iraqi soldiers.

So, when that lone, erratic driver comes along who seems not to give a damn about all the alerts and warnings, the stakes go up, and shots are likely to be fired.

“We tell our guys, when hostile intent meets with imminent threat, use deadly force,” said Marine Lt. Col. Eric Smith, commander of 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, an infantry unit of the 2nd Marine Division that is working under the Army’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.

While the Defense Department is investigating why soldiers shot at a car carrying Italian journalist and recently released hostage Giuliana Sgrena near the Baghdad airport March 4, soldiers and Marines manning checkpoints are not quick to use deadly force, the military says, because there is a deliberate process that governs the use of such force.

The Marines are manning two checkpoints at bridges leading into and out of the western sector of the city. A third entry control point on the eastern side of the city is manned by soldiers of 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment.

Up to 4,000 vehicles pass through the entry control points — established Feb. 20 — every day.

When a civilian drives up to one of these semi-permanent checkpoints, the first thing he sees is a sign in Arabic that alerts drivers of the checkpoint ahead and warns them to slow down or stop. The sign also tells drivers that deadly force is authorized.

As the vehicle gets closer, orange cones funnel cars into a single lane, and coils of concertina wire may channel the driver through a series of “S” turns, in which there may be spike strips that can puncture tires if the driver tries to back up.

Amid a perimeter protected by sandbags and concrete barriers, the driver will spot armed U.S. troops and Iraqi soldiers who give hand signals, either waving the driver through or motioning for the driver to stop or pull into an area where a search can be conducted.

The distance from the point at which a driver sees the written sign until he gets through the entry control point could be anywhere from 50 meters to 200 meters, and there is little room for interpretation in the signals for drivers to follow instructions.

“If you get through all that and you haven’t stopped, then you’ll see some sort of pyrotechnics, like star clusters or a flare or lights to get their attention,” said Army Col. Gary Patton, commander of 2nd BCT, which deployed from Camp Hovey, South Korea, to Ramadi in August and is under the command of the 2nd Marine Division in Anbar province.

If the driver doesn’t react by slowing down or stopping, Patton said, he will hear warning shots that might be accompanied by a tracer round. The shots will be aimed to hit the ground around the vehicle or strike the vehicle’s engine block or tires, he said.

The progressive series of lights, bells and bullhorns is designed to make absolutely clear what is expected of the driver, and if all that fails, the American and Iraqi troops are authorized to escalate the lethality of force.

“When all other nonlethal means have been exhausted, when they cross the trigger line, at that point we apply deadly force,” Patton said. “It’s a situational dependent thing. It’s to protect them from accidentally stumbling into a checkpoint and getting shot.”

‘Suicide post’

Iraqi soldiers do most of the searching, but there is usually a forward bunker the Marines call the “suicide post,” and there also may be a dog handler who goes — alone with his dog — to the vehicles. Those are American jobs.

It’s a dangerous place to be, but it’s just another day at the proverbial office.

“Someone’s got to go out there with that dog and sniff the car. We do everything we can do to keep them safe,” said Smith, 39, of Plano, Texas. “This is a war on terrorism. Someone’s got to get out there and make contact. He’s basically disembarking on landing craft at Normandy or Iwo Jima. It just doesn’t look the same.”

The dog and his handler are usually the first to get a crack at the car.

“Every time I go up to a car, [there’s a feeling of nervousness], but it’s my job,” said Air Force Tech Sgt. Robert Hansen, 34, of Heathsville, Va., who is stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., and on his first assignment in Iraq.

“If my dog finds something out there that saves Marines’ and soldiers’ lives, then we’ve done our job. I love my job. It’s a big challenge.”

Rules of engagement are reviewed with the troops before their shift. Some of the natural fears and tension that come with facing a possible suicide bomber can be allayed if the mission is put on the table for discussion, leaders say.

“You just have to prepare them before they come out here,” said 1-5 Marine 2nd Lt. Austin Adams, 23, of Los Angeles.

“We talk about ROE and the escalation of force. We have realistic talks and ask them how they would react to different situations. We break it down and paint a different picture for them, try to make them relate it to their own lives.”

The Iraqi soldiers also are coached in how to treat their fellow citizens and have been excellent at recognizing people who are threats, the Americans say.

Having the Iraqis at the checkpoints also bolsters the location as a place for gathering intelligence, and Smith said there has been an increase in the interaction with the locals, who generally are understanding of the checkpoints.

At the entry control points, there are also female U.S. soldiers who search Iraqi women traveling as passengers in detained vehicles.

Still, the biggest fear is car bombs, perhaps because they are quick, deadly, random and unpredictable.

While the majority of vehicles coursing through checkpoints here do not pose a threat, the 2nd BCT soldiers on the east end of the city recently came face to face with a car bomb, and they know that it only takes one, usually lone, driver to cause great harm and take lives.

On March 5, two soldiers from 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, and two Iraqi police commandos were killed by a suicide bomber whose car and person already had been checked through.

The searchers didn’t find anything obvious in the car, and the driver wasn’t displaying any unusual behavior, so they told him he could pass. But when the driver got back behind the steering wheel, he got out again, feigning car trouble, saying he couldn’t start the engine. As the driver, the soldiers and the commandos were pushing the car toward the search area to move it out of the way, the car exploded and all five were killed.

The explosives may have been hidden inside the seats or the side panels of the car. As a result, the Army has implemented countermeasures, but it was a high price to pay and underscored the randomness of the population coursing through checkpoint operations.

“This guy was indistinguishable from any other Iraqi male,” said Patton. “The rules of engagement are intended to protect innocent people and give the soldier the right to defend himself.

“The warning shots and disabling fire are all intended to stop this vehicle before it becomes a weapon.”

24 car bombs

In the seven months the 2nd Brigade Combat Team has been in Ramadi, Patton said his soldiers have seen more than 24 car bombs; 18 were detonated in November during Ramadan. Some of those have been at checkpoints and have contributed to the high human toll the U.S. troops have paid.

As of March 20, the brigade had lost 52 soldiers and 16 Marines working with them.

A coalition spokesman said casualty statistics for checkpoints across Iraq are not available because they are not tracked down to that level.

In Ramadi, the arrival of the Iraqi 1st Battalion, 2nd Special Police Commandos from outside the province boosted manpower to the levels needed to operate the three permanent joint checkpoints in the city, which is the capital of Anbar province and the largest population center in western Iraq with close to 400,000 residents.

The II Marine Expeditionary Force has responsibility for the province and uses those roads as main supply routes from Baghdad to the Syrian and Jordanian borders and points in between.

The eastern entry control point, manned by the Army, suffered the deadly car bomb in early March and already had been attacked with mortars, rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire.

Between the checkpoints, soldiers man mobile observation points on overpasses and other high points from where they can relay information or watch for insurgent activity, such as the planting of roadside bombs. One of the enemy’s newest tactics is what Patton called the stop-and-drop — a bomb inside a sandbag sack that is dropped alongside the road from a car that slows down just long enough to drop it.

The troops also set up random, flash checkpoints in the city, quickly blocking traffic and setting up orange cones, Arabic language signage and concertina wire they keep in their Humvees while on patrol. The element of surprise can be effective but can also make troops vulnerable.

On Nov. 11, a platoon of soldiers from 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, were setting up a flash checkpoint when a white Chevy Caprice barreled past a column of Iraqi cars stopped for the roadblock. The driver, a suicide bomber, blew his charge when he got up to where the soldiers were.

“We didn’t have the [checkpoint] set up yet. We were in the process of setting it up, and we were all gathered in one spot. We didn’t see [the car coming] because there was a group of cars blocking” our view, said Army Pfc. William Meeks, 20, of Portland, Ore., who was wounded in the blast along with several others.

“It happened so fast. The next thing you know, when the car bomb blew, there were women and children screaming, and I’m just laying there all dazed,” Meeks said, recalling the others who were injured and Army Staff Sgt. Sean P. Huey, who was killed. “That’s one of those memories you don’t forget.”

Meeks is back on the job working at an observation point, but he still occasionally works on a checkpoint.

“You’re worried at first, but then you just get used to it,” he said. “You adapt.”

Staff writer Joseph R. Chenelly contributed to this report.
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