William Langewiesche writes: Jess Cunningham was a staff sergeant in a mechanized unit of the U.S. Army—Alpha Company, First Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, First Infantry Division—during the intensified fighting that accompanied the surge of American troops in Baghdad in 2007. This was his second tour in Iraq, and his first with Alpha Company. He had been a high-school football star in Bakersfield, California, before heading off to war. He had excelled in the army, rising rapidly through the ranks. Now 26, he was strong, alert, and accustomed to battle. He had a bright future.
But he also had a problem. Although Alpha Company appeared from the outside to be like any other infantry unit, neatly integrated into the larger American force structure, on the inside it revolved to an unusual degree around a single personality—that of an imposing first sergeant, a hard-charging 18-year veteran named John Hatley, who dominated the company. Hatley was a burly Texan who spoke with a drawl. He carried his 240 pounds on a six-foot frame, and at the age of 40 still achieved a perfect 300 on the army’s physical-fitness test. He had been the company’s first sergeant for three years and had delayed a promotion to sergeant major in order to return with his men to the fight. He reveled in his power. He made it clear that the rules of engagement that mattered were the ones he alone defined. Cunningham had never encountered such a sergeant before. He himself was a team player and not immune to Hatley’s leadership qualities, but over the first few months in Baghdad he began to struggle privately with doubts. The company called itself Wolf Pack and sometimes seemed to act like one. Cunningham did not question the war itself, but he wondered about the treatment of Iraqi detainees and the actions of certain gunners who seemed to be playing loose with their justifications for killing.
Alpha Company’s area of operations lay in southwest Baghdad, one of the most active battlefields in Iraq. Sunnis and Shiites were fighting over the neighborhoods, and insurgents from both groups were warring on American patrols. The U.S. mission was to promote stability. This boiled down to convoys of recent American high-school graduates lumbering around in Bradley troop carriers and armored Humvees from which they could barely see, struggling to distinguish combatants from civilians in an indecipherable city, and waiting to get attacked. Cunningham served as a squad leader in the company’s Second Platoon. They were based with Hatley’s headquarters platoon at a fortified combat outpost called Angry Dragon, which also housed the company’s Tactical Operations Center, an office and briefing room known as Wolf Den on the radios. Wolf Pack, Wolf Den, Angry Dragon—the bravura was probably useful, given the youth of the soldiers. The engagements were frequent and anything but child’s play. They resulted in uncounted numbers of Iraqi deaths. By contrast, the accounting of American losses was carefully done. During Alpha Company’s 14 months on the ground, six soldiers were killed and three were gravely wounded—a toll that amounted to a casualty rate of about 15 percent in Cunningham’s platoon alone. The first soldier died four months into the fight, on February 27, 2007. He was a tall, 22-year-old staff sergeant named Karl Soto-Pinedo, who was shot in the head by a sniper after he rose too high above the hatch of his Bradley. Three weeks later, on March 17, 2007, a 30-year-old specialist named Marieo Guerrero was lost to a jerry-rigged land mine, an I.E.D. [Continue reading…]
Gideon Levy writes: The United Nations Human Rights Council’s report did not tell us anything new. We did not need to wait a year to know that Israel (and Hamas) committed war crimes; there was no need to impanel a committee to know that Israel went wild in Gaza; there was no need to bother judge Mary McGowan Davis in order for her to tell us that it is unacceptable to drop a one-ton bomb in the middle of a neighborhood. We have known that for a long time.
The UN report also did not tell us anything new about Israel’s response. There was no need to publish it to know the scope of unreceptiveness and denial within Israeli society, the low level to which the Israeli media stooped in finally allowing itself to become an agent of propaganda, and the lack of interest that all this killing and destruction in Gaza arouse in Israel. We have known all that for a long time.
The world knows the fundamental truths, and every commission repeats them like a parrot, and nothing changes: Israel ignores international law. It is convinced that it applies to all countries, except for itself. According to its combat theory, when the life of one Israeli soldier is at stake it is alright to wreak havoc with everything, and when Israel says everything it means everything. There is no chance Israel will change its doctrine of death and destruction, unless it is punished severely. Therefore this report, like all its predecessors, has no value at all.
If the Goldstone Report, which described in harsher colors a less brutal attack, did not prevent Operation Protective Edge, then why do we need all these reports? If the international community, which knew in real time what the Israel Defense Forces was doing in Gaza, did not respond immediately with actions that would stop it, then there is no reason for these commissions of inquiry after the fact.
If in the wake of this commission, too, the international community does not take practical steps against war criminals, then there is no further reason for commissions. [Continue reading…]
UPI reports: The Obama administration opposes bringing a United Nations report on the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip to the Security Council for a vote, the State Department said.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday the United States continues to review the U.N. report that found evidence of war crimes on the part of both the Israeli and Hamas-led Palestinian forces. Kirby said the United States calls into question the U.N. Human Rights Council’s process of appointing the investigative committee because of a “very clear bias against Israel.”
“We challenge the very mechanism which created it. And so we’re not going to have a readout of this. We’re not going to have a rebuttal to it. We’re certainly going to read it, as we read all U.N. reports,” Kirby said. “But we challenge the very foundation upon which this report was written, and we don’t believe that there’s a call or a need for any further Security Council work on this.”
The 200-page report found, among other things, 1,462 Palestinian civilians were killed by Israeli fire, noting over one-third were children. It added a large number of families lost three or more members in airstrikes against residences. Six Israeli civilians died during the conflict. [Continue reading…]
UN report on Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza says those responsible for war crimes ‘must be brought to justice’
The Guardian reports: A United Nations inquiry into the 2014 Gaza war has accused Israeli and Palestinian factions of multiple potential violations of international law including suspected war crimes.
Calling on Israel to “break with its lamentable track record” and hold wrongdoers responsible, the hard-hitting report commissioned by the UN human rights council laid most of the blame for Israel’s suspected violations at the feet of the country’s political and military leadership. The commission said leaders should have been aware as the war progressed that their failure to change course was leading to huge civilian casualties.
“Those responsible for suspected violations of international law at all levels of the political and military establishments must be brought to justice,” it says. [Continue reading…]
The Daily Beast reports: For those looking at Syria’s four-year-long conflict from the outside, the slaughter has appeared to have little or no pattern, a barbaric struggle in which all are equally guilty. But a new survey of blood-curdling sectarian massacres perpetrated in Syria since the start of the civil war provides a very clear picture of the ultimate villain behind the carnage.
According to the survey by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, there have been 56 major massacres displaying obvious sectarian or ethnic cleansing traits. Of these 49 were carried out by Syrian government forces or local and foreign militia allies of President Bashar al-Assad, making a mockery of the Syrian leader’s frequent claim to foreign broadcasters that his soldiers would never harm their own people deliberately as a matter of policy.
In fact, three days before Assad sat down with the BBC for an especially chilling interview last February and lamented how war, alas, causes casualties, government-aligned militiamen stormed the As-Sabil neighborhood in the Syrian city of Homs and slaughtered three Sunni families, including four children and five women. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: The Israeli military has decided not to pursue criminal charges against soldiers involved in missile strikes in the Gaza Strip last summer that killed four children playing on a beach.
The Military Advocate General Corps investigated the notorious incident, which took place on July 16 in view of the hotels where international journalists were staying, and concluded that there was no criminal wrongdoing.
The four young cousins who were killed were sons of the extended Bakr fishing family, ages 9 to 11. Four other youths were injured by shrapnel. Images of the dead and wounded children being rushed from the beach toward ambulances were broadcast around the world. A reporter for The Washington Post witnessed the attack.
The children were playing on the breakwater jetty in the Gaza City harbor when the aerial assault began. After the first salvo was fired, they ran toward a beach hotel where journalists were working, and a second Israeli strike was fired directly at the group.
In a summary of the criminal investigation released Thursday night, the Israel Defense Forces said its troops believed they were targeting militants from the Hamas navy. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Under unusual pressure from Israel and the United States, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, opted not to include either Israel or Hamas on a list of armies and guerrilla groups that kill and maim children in conflicts worldwide, despite the recommendations of one of his senior envoys, diplomats say.
The list was part of an annual report of violations of children’s rights, an advance copy of which was circulated to members of the Security Council on Monday morning, that goes into great detail on the actions of Israeli security forces during the 50-day war in the Gaza Strip last year. The report raised what it called “serious concern over the observance of the rules of international humanitarian law concerning the conduct of hostilities.”
The report says that at least 540 children were killed, another 2,955 wounded and 262 schools damaged by Israeli airstrikes. It also cited Palestinian militants for firing rockets indiscriminately toward Israel, killing a 4-year-old Israeli boy and gravely wounding at least six Israeli children. [Continue reading…]
Amnesty International: Hamas forces carried out a brutal campaign of abductions, torture and unlawful killings against Palestinians accused of “collaborating” with Israel and others during Israel’s military offensive against Gaza in July and August 2014, according to a new report by Amnesty International.
‘Strangling Necks’: Abduction, torture and summary killings of Palestinians by Hamas forces during the 2014 Gaza/Israel conflict highlights a series of abuses, such as the extrajudicial execution of at least 23 Palestinians and the arrest and torture of dozens of others, including members and supporters of Hamas’s political rivals, Fatah.
“It is absolutely appalling that, while Israeli forces were inflicting massive death and destruction upon the people in Gaza, Hamas forces took the opportunity to ruthlessly settle scores, carrying out a series of unlawful killings and other grave abuses,” said Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.
Frontline: In August of 2013, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus was attacked with sarin gas — a nerve agent that causes lung muscle paralysis and results in death from suffocation.
The attack killed 1,400 men, women and children, and at the White House, officials asserted “with high confidence” that the government of Bashar al-Assad was responsible.
One year earlier, President Barack Obama had described Assad’s potential use of chemical weapons as “a red line” that would have “enormous consequences” and “change my calculus” on American military intervention in Syria’s civil war.
When Assad appeared to cross that line, Obama ordered the Pentagon to prepare to attack.
“Our finger was on the trigger,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tells veteran FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith in Tuesday’s new documentary, Obama at War. “We had everything in place and we were just waiting for instructions to proceed.”
But as FRONTLINE details in the below excerpt from Obama at War, the president had second thoughts. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: On a spring afternoon in mid-March, a barrel bomb believed to have been laced with chlorine fell on a village in northern Syria. The gas made its way through a ventilation shaft, suffocating a family of three children, their parents and their grandmother.
“One of the children died in silence before we got to the hospital,” said Raed Saleh, the head of a Syrian civil defence force called the White Helmets. “We did what we could to save her, but dying in silence was her fate. Death in silence before the whole world.”
Saleh said it was the second chemical attack that night, an opening salvo in a campaign in which three-dozen such barrel bombs were dropped, according to medical and humanitarian workers, mostly on civilian targets in Idlib province, which fell to a coalition of rebel fighters in March. [Continue reading…]
The book begins with a description of one of the battles that preceded Hitler’s massive Ardennes offensive, and it is this that sets the tone of the pages to come. In the autumn of 1944, the Allied advance across western Europe finally got bogged down on the borders of Germany. The Americans found themselves entangled in a bitter fight for the Hürtgen forest, a place that, in Beevor’s words, was “so dense and so dark that it soon seemed cursed, as if in a sinister fairy-tale of witches and ogres”. There is no hyperbole in this description, he insists. “It is purely a reflection of the way the soldiers saw it themselves. Everybody who described that place talked of it in those sort of terms.” As part of his research, Beevor visited the forest, “and there is something spooky about it”.
Here, men on both sides developed extraordinarily creative ways of killing one another. They fired bursts of artillery at the tree tops so that splinters would tear through the people below. They learnt to play on the instincts of their enemies, placing landmines wherever they might seek shelter, such as in hollows or shell holes. Soldiers were often afraid to look about them, because they were too busy scanning the forest floor for trip wires. The Germans, in particular, developed a habit of placing explosive charges beneath American wounded or dead, knowing that as soon as a rescue team or burial party tried to move them, they, too, would be killed by the explosion.
“This is not a normal part of human behaviour,” Beevor tells me. The purpose of tactics such as this was not only to kill the enemy but also destroy their spirit. Both sides, he says, knew that demoralising the enemy could be the key to winning each battle; thus brutality, even atrocity, became an integral part of the fighting.
Over the coming weeks, the logic of such brutality would be tested to the full. On December 16, 1944, the Germans launched their counter-attack across the boggy fields and wooded hills of south east Belgium. Much of the German army was made up of SS soldiers who had served in Russia, where they were notorious for torching villages and killing all the inhabitants. Now they brought the fighting methods of the eastern front to the heart of Belgium: civilians suspected of sympathising with the Americans were murdered, women were raped, farmhouses looted, and prisoners of war were shot. There were several massacres, most notably at Malmédy, where 130 American prisoners were herded into a field by SS Panzergrenadiers and 84 were machine-gunned to death.
Faced with this onslaught, the American defenders fell back in disarray. The units defending this part of the line were already demoralised by their recent encounters in the Hürtgen forest, and many of them now simply broke down. Those who suffered worst were the new recruits who had only recently joined their units to replace men who had already died. “There probably is no more desperate position than finding yourself in combat for the first time,” Beevor says. “It’s counter to every form of normal human experience. It becomes intensely personal, as if every bullet is aimed at you, as if every shell is aimed at you. The poor b——- came in without proper training – they were the ones who cracked in no time at all.”
The morale of American troops quickly became a serious problem. Instances of self-inflicted injuries increased as traumatised soldiers did whatever they could to escape the violence of the front. Usually these injuries took the form of an “accidental” rifle shot through the left hand or the foot, but one soldier from the 99th Infantry Division was so desperate that he lay down beside a large tree, reached around it, and exploded a grenade in his hand.
However, if the shock of the German attack struck fear into some American soldiers, it seemed to have the opposite effect on others. “The determination to fight back was astonishing,” says Beevor, “and probably the most important contribution to the eventual outcome.” News of the atrocities committed by SS troops also strengthened American resolve.
At this point, Beevor begins to tell me some of the savage details of American revenge. Their first targets, he says, were SS soldiers, who were often shot out of hand. He also talks of at least one platoon that vowed never to take any prisoners at all: whenever the Germans raised a white flag, a sergeant would stand up and beckon them closer before giving his men the command to fire. At Chenogne the 11th Armoured Division shot 60 German prisoners: “There was no secret about it – Patton even mentions it in his diaries.”
Perhaps the most shocking thing about this culture of revenge is that the American commanders were not only complicit but actively encouraged it. [Continue reading…]
Noah Feldman, professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University, writes: We’ll probably never know the accuracy of all the details in Seymour Hersh’s alternative account of the killing of Osama bin Laden. But Hersh’s version has enough verisimilitude that it calls for reconsidering what has always been the most troubling legal question, even under the official version of the event: Was the shooting of bin Laden proportionate and therefore justified under international law? Or was it, to put the matter bluntly, a war crime?
Recall that, when the White House first broke the story, it incorrectly stated that bin Laden had been reaching for an AK-47 when he was shot. Were that true, the killing would have been legal under the U.S. interpretation of international law. Since Congress had declared war on al-Qaeda after Sept. 11, bin Laden was a combatant — and it’s permissible to shoot an armed combatant in wartime. True, you have to accept that the struggle against al-Qaeda is really a war, and that the battlefield extends to the whole world — propositions that many non-American international lawyers dispute. But at least within the official U.S. version of the laws of war, the killing would not have been problematic.
When official word came down that bin Laden had in fact been unarmed, another legal justification became necessary. The laws of war require proportionate force to be used against the enemy. One variant of the story has it that bin Laden was shot first in the body, disabling him, then in the head to make sure he was dead. If this had been true, the second shot or shots sound uncomfortably like a coup de grace — which would be illegal, as the first shots would’ve rendered bin Laden out of combat under the laws of war.
The government’s argument seemed to be that the shots to bin Laden’s head were legally justified because bin Laden might have had a button for a suicide bomb or a remotely triggered explosive device on his person. Under the circumstances, shooting him in the body wouldn’t have guaranteed the safety of the shooters. Shooting him in the head would therefore arguably have been justified, because it would have been proportionate to the amount of force needed to defeat the enemy while preserving the safety of the U.S. troops.
If this theory sounds tenuous to you, you’re not alone. Nevertheless, it furnished the fig leaf the Barack Obama administration needed so that the president didn’t find himself bragging about a killing that was unlawful even under the U.S. interpretation of the laws of war.
Hersh’s account — which cites both named and unnamed sources — differs in three important ways, raising new legal questions. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: If President Obama hoped that the danger of chemical warfare in the Middle East receded when Syria gave up tons of poison gas, mounting evidence that toxic weapons remain in the strife-torn country could once again force him to decide just how far he is willing to go to enforce his famous “red line.”
The discovery of traces of ricin and sarin in Syria, combined with the use of chlorine as a makeshift weapon in the country’s grinding civil war, undercut what Mr. Obama had viewed as a signal triumph of his foreign policy, the destruction of President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical arsenal.
But Mr. Obama appears no more eager to use military force against Mr. Assad’s government today than he was in 2013 when he abruptly called off a threatened airstrike in exchange for a Russian-brokered agreement in which Syria voluntarily gave up its chemical weapons. Instead, the Obama administration responded to reports of violations this time by seeking renewed assistance from Russia and exploring a new United Nations Security Council resolution addressing Syria’s continued use of chemicals as weapons.
“You’re dealing with a regime that is not very credible on weapons of mass destruction programs,” said Robert Ford, the Obama administration’s former ambassador to Syria. “No one should be surprised the regime didn’t declare all of its facilities. But the bad news in all of this is the regime is using chemical weapons regularly — even if not sarin gas now, they’re using chlorine gas regularly and they are not deterred from doing so.” [Continue reading…]
Syrians risked their lives to collect evidence of Assad’s war crimes. Will their cases ever be heard in court?
Julian Borger reports: One day in February 2014, a dusty and dented pick-up truck approached an Isis checkpoint outside the Syrian border town of Tell Abyad, carrying two men dressed in the simple djellaba robes and loose keffiyehs worn by local farmers. The fighter on duty checked their identity cards and cast an eye over the fertiliser bags and scraps of wood piled in the back of the vehicle. The driver and his passenger said they were in the area to visit relatives, and the fighter waved them through.
The two men drove across the Turkish border, having cleared the last – and potentially most lethal – obstacle on a long clandestine journey. Hidden under the sacks of fertiliser in the back of the truck was a batch of documents salvaged from the battlefields of Syria’s bloody conflict, and smuggled across the country at enormous risk. Amid the thousands of pages of military orders and government reports that had just come across the border was vital evidence of war crimes, which could one day form the core of an international prosecution of Bashar al-Assad and his regime.
The driver of the pick-up, a stocky man in his 40s named Adel, was the chief investigator for the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA). An independent organisation set up by experts on humanitarian law, with funding from western governments, its aim is to collect evidence of atrocities committed by the Syrian regime and opposition, in preparation for the day when they can be judged by a tribunal. Adel and his team of 50 investigators had made many such trips in the three years since the CIJA was established, but these smuggling runs through Tell Abyad in the first months of 2014 would prove to be the most fruitful. They were carrying the greatest find of the investigation so far: a complete set of documents from the provinces of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, which provided a clear picture of the regime’s machinery of repression, and showed how tightly it is controlled by Assad and his inner circle.
Adel had visited Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor in December 2013, with introductions from mutual acquaintances to a handful of the commanders of Islamist militias in the region. These militias had scored a string of victories over the Syrian army earlier that year, seizing government buildings in the process. Adel was interested in what was inside these buildings – the paperwork left behind in filing cabinets and underground archives. In Raqqa, leaders of the local Salafist militia offered to help collect what Adel was looking for; over the next few days, they came to him with plastic bags and cardboard boxes full of papers from the abandoned secret police headquarters in the town of Taqba and from Raqqa city itself.
In Deir ez-Zor, the situation was more complicated. The dominant military force there was the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida offshoot opposed to any venture associated with the west. But one of the group’s local commanders – a man of “grace and education”, according to Adel – agreed to covertly provide assistance. His fighters allowed Adel’s investigators to comb through the military intelligence building and sweep up the files and loose papers scattered around its deserted shell.
By January 2014, Adel’s archive had rapidly grown to fill a dozen boxes – about 150kg of paper – which were stacked against the walls in a house he had rented in Raqqa. He had collected documents from many abandoned government facilities in his earlier sorties into Syria, but had never seen anything like this. “I opened the first box of documents and I saw right away how important they were,” he said. “They were from the security service, not just the military, and they provided a blueprint of how things happened in the regime’s security apparatus. What was particularly important in the documents from Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor was that their security branches kept copies of orders coming down from Damascus and the reports going up the chain. They provide the vital linkage evidence of crimes occurring on the ground.” [Continue reading…]
Reuters: International inspectors have found traces of sarin and VX nerve agent at a military research site in Syria that had not been declared to the global chemical weapons watchdog, diplomatic sources said on Friday.
Samples taken by experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition and Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in December and January tested positive for chemical precursors needed to make the toxic agents, the sources told Reuters on the condition of anonymity because the information is confidential.
“This is a pretty strong indication they have been lying about what they did with sarin,” one diplomatic source said. “They have so far been unable to give a satisfactory explanation about this finding.”
Neve Gordon writes: Several months ago, a young woman working in Kibbutz Dorot’s carrot fields noticed a piece of paper lying on the ground with a short inscription in Arabic. It looked like a treasure map. She put it in her pocket. Some time later, she gave it to her friend Avihai, who works for Breaking the Silence, an organisation of military veterans who collect testimony from Israeli soldiers to provide a record of everyday life in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Avihai was in the middle of interviewing soldiers about their experiences during Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip last summer. He recognised the piece of paper as a leaflet that had been dropped by an Israeli plane above Palestinian neighbourhoods in the northern part of the Strip; the wind had blown it six miles from its intended landing point.
The leaflet helps explain why 70 per cent of the 2220 Palestinians killed during the war were civilians. The red line on the map traces a route from a bright blue area labelled Beit Lahia, a Palestinian town of 60,000 inhabitants at the north edge of the Strip, and moves south through Muaskar Jabalia to Jabalia city. The text reads:
Military Notification to the Residents of Beit Lahia
The IDF will be undertaking forceful and assertive air operations against terrorist elements and infrastructure in the locations from which they launch their missiles at the State of Israel. These locations include:
From east Atatra to Salatin Street. From west [unclear] to Jabalia Camp.
You must evacuate your homes immediately and head toward southern Jabalia town along the following road:
Falluja Road, until 12 noon, Sunday 13 July 2014.
The IDF does not intend to harm you or your families. These operations are temporary and will be of short duration. Any person, however, who violates these instructions and does not evacuate his home immediately puts his own life as well as the lives of his household in danger. Those who take heed will be spared.
‘The significance of this leaflet,’ Yehuda Shaul, the founder of Breaking the Silence, told me, ‘cannot be appreciated fully without reading our new report.’ The report is made up of 111 testimonies, provided by around seventy soldiers who participated in the fighting.
One thing is immediately clear from the interviews: the IDF’s working assumption was that once the leaflets were dropped, anyone who refused to move was a legitimate target: [Continue reading…]
Amnesty International: The killing of hundreds of civilians, including scores of children, and the injury of thousands during the relentless Saudi Arabian-led campaign of airstrikes across Yemen must be urgently investigated, said Amnesty International, one month after the strikes began.
“The month-long campaign of air strikes carried out by Saudi Arabia and its allies has transformed many parts of Yemen into a dangerous place for civilians,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
“Millions of people have been forced to live in a state of utter terror, afraid of being killed at home. Many feel they are left with no choice but to move away from their destroyed villages to an uncertain future.”
According to the UN more than 550 civilians have been killed including more than 100 children since the military campaign began on 25 March.
Amnesty International has documented eight strikes in five densely populated areas (Sa’dah, Sana’a, Hodeidah, Hajjah and Ibb). Several of these strikes raise concerns about compliance with the rules of international humanitarian law.