A drive straight into death

April 2 2003

As an unidentified four-wheel-drive vehicle came barrelling towards an intersection held by troops of the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, Captain Ronny Johnson grew alarmed. From his position at the intersection, he was heard on the radio to one of his forward platoons of M2 Bradley fighting vehicles, alerting it to a potential threat.

“Fire a warning shot,” he ordered as the vehicle kept coming. Then, with increasing urgency, he told the platoon to shoot into its radiator. “Stop (messing) around,” Captain Johnson yelled into the company radio network when he saw no action being taken. Finally, he shouted: “Stop him, Red 1, stop him.”

That order was immediately followed by the loud reports of cannon fire. About half a dozen shots were heard.

“Cease fire,” Captain Johnson yelled over the radio. Then, as he peered into his binoculars from the intersection on Highway 9, he roared at the platoon leader: “You just (expletive) killed a family because you didn’t fire a warning shot soon enough.” So it was that on a warm, hazy day in central Iraq, the fog of war descended on Bravo Company.

Fifteen Iraqi civilians were packed inside the Toyota, along with as many of their possessions as the vehicle could hold. Ten, including five children who appeared to be under five, were killed, Captain Johnson’s company reported. Of the five others, one man was so severely injured he was not expected to live.

According to the Pentagon, the vehicle was fired on after the driver ignored shouted orders and warning shots. A statement said the vehicle was a van carrying “13 women and children”. The statement claimed seven were killed and two injured.

In Doha, Qatar, US Central Command issued a statement, saying: “In light of recent terrorist attacks by the Iraqi regime, the soldiers exercised considerable restraint to avoid the unnecessary loss of life.” The shooting is being investigated.

Back at the scene, Sergeant Mario Manzano, 26, a medic with Bravo Company of the division’s 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, said: “It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen, and I hope I never see it again.” He said one wounded woman sat in the vehicle holding the mangled bodies of two of her children. “She didn’t want to get out of the car,” he said.

The tragedy cast a pall over the company as it sat on this stretch of Highway 9 at the intersection of a road leading to Hilla, about 20 kilometres to the east, near the Euphrates River.

Dealing with the gruesome scene was a new experience for many of the soldiers. They debated how the tragedy could have been avoided. Several said they accepted the platoon leader’s explanation to Captain Johnson on the military radio that he had fired two warning shots, but that the driver failed to stop. And everybody was edgy since four US soldiers were blown up by a suicide bomber on Saturday at a checkpoint much like theirs, only 30 kilometres to the south.

The soldiers of Bravo Company had their own reasons to be edgy. The Bradley tank of the 3rd Battalion’s operations officer, Major Roger Shuck, had been fired on with a rocket-propelled grenade a few kilometres south of Karbala. Throughout the day, Iraqis lobbed mortar volleys.

It was in the late afternoon after this day defending their positions that the men of Bravo Company saw the blue Toyota coming down the road. After the shooting, US medics evacuated survivors to US lines south of Karbala. One woman escaped without a scratch. Another, who had superficial head wounds, was flown by helicopter to a US field hospital when it was found she was pregnant.

Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen Twitty, the 3rd Battalion commander, gave permission for three survivors to return to the vehicle and recover the bodies of their loved ones. “They wanted to bury them before the dogs got to them,” said Corporal Brian Truenow, 28.

To try to prevent a recurrence, Captain Johnson ordered signs be posted in Arabic to warn people to stop well short of the Bradleys. Before the signs could be erected, 10 people with white flags walked down the road and were allowed to walk around the Bradleys. And the war continued.

– Washington Post

This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/04/01/1048962756979.html

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