The Attack on the Ameriyya Air Raid Shelter
The largest loss of civilian life in a single incident occurred in the attack on the Ameriyya civil-defense shelter at approximately 4:30 a.m. on February 13, which killed between 200 and 300 civilians, according tovarious Iraqi reports. The United States, which was responsible for the attack, claimed it had intercepted signals and made various observations suggesting that the facility was being used as a military command-and-control center. Among the visual observations announced were the building's hardened exterior, the presence of military personnel at the site, the location of camouflage paint on the structure's roof and a barbed-wire fence around the perimeter. U.S. commanders claimed not to have noticed that civilians were using the shelter.
The attack raises several questions about the precautions taken by the United States to verify that the shelter was an appropriate military target. For example, the Pentagon concedes that it knew the Ameriyya facility had been used as a civil-defense shelter during the Iran-Iraq war, but U.S. officials gave no warning that they considered its protected status as a civilian shelter to have ended. Article 65 of Protocol I provides that the special protection afforded civil-defense structures ceases in the event that a shelter is used for military purposes "only after a warning has been given setting, whenever appropriate, a reasonable time-limit, and after such warning has remained unheeded."
Although the United States has not commented one way or the other on whether it views the warning requirement of Article 65 to be a matter of customary international law, a fair interpretation of the recognized customary-law requirement that all feasible precautions be taken to avoid civilian casualties, including by giving "effective advance warning" of attacks which may affect the civilian population unless circumstances do not permit (Article 57 of Protocol I; U.S. Air Force Manual, pp. 5-11), would suggest that such a warning should have been given. The United States' failure to give such a warning before proceeding with the disastrous attack on the Ameriyya shelter was a serious violation of the laws of war.
The United States also has been disturbingly silent about the steps taken to determine that the Ameriyya shelter was an appropriate target for attack. The silence has precluded independent assessment of whether these steps complied with U.S. obligations. It is now well established, through interviews with neighborhood residents, that the Ameriyya structure was plainly marked as a public shelter and was used throughout the air war by large numbers of civilians. That military personnel were observed at the facility is not conclusive in labeling it amilitary target because Article 65 makes clear that civil-defense functions can be carried out under the control of or in cooperation with military personnel without the facilities used losing their protective status. Although the United States has charged that the civilians were difficult to observe because they must have entered the shelter after dark, U.S. officials have not explained why large numbers of civilians were not observed in the daylight of the morning when they exited the shelter.
· To date, the Pentagon has released virtually no information about the war's impact on Iraqi civilians. This silence has extended even to the public version ofthe interim report, released in July, in which Congress had required the Pentagon to estimate the civilian casualties suffered by Iraq. The two exceptions to this policy of silence were the U.S. justifications for the bombing of the Ameriyya air raid shelter in Baghdad and the British admissions of error in the bombing of a bridge in Fallujah west of Baghdad.
· After the bombing of the Ameriyya civilian shelter in Baghdad on February 13, Iraq began to release figures indicating that civilian casualties had, inexplicably, jumped into the thousands. Substantiation for the dramatic increase in the reported civilian toll was not provided. For example, Iraq's ambassador in Tokyo said on February 14 that an estimated 7,000 civilians had been killed in the allies' bombing raids to date, which had totaled 70,000 sorties.
· Iraq's first deputy minister of health told The Washington Post in June that there were "thousands and thousands" of civilian casualties, but refused to provide more specific numbers; he said that the government would announce a figure and that it would be "based on correct data."
In contrast to the statistics issued during the war by government officials, Iraqi doctors provided more modest figures in post-war interviews with visitors and journalists about the number of civilian casualties treated during the war, shedding some light on the extent of injuries from the bombing in Baghdad, though not in other parts of the country. Doctors at Yarmuk Hospital, Baghdad's second largest hospital and a major surgical facility, reported that approximately 600 "war victims" were treated at the hospital. The director of Yarmuk Hospital told members of a visiting U.S. group that, in addition to those injured in the bombing of the Ameriyya air raid shelter in Baghdad, about 1,000 civilians were treated during the war and that between 150 and 200 of them died. According to one member of the U.S. group, the doctor later revised his estimate downward to between 100 and 150 dead. In asubsequent interview with The Washington Post in June, he said that he was not allowed to release statistics about the number of people who had died at the hospital during the air war.
The director of the 400-bed al-Kindi Hospital in the Nahda quarter of Baghdad told a representative of the U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights in March that about 500 civilians were brought to the hospital during the war; about 25 percent were dead on arrival and another 50 percent died of their injuries or septicemia. At Saddam General Hospital, located in the Saddam City suburb of Baghdad, another 400 people were said to have been treated. Statistics were not provided about the number of these patients who died, nor about the total number of civilians treated in the hospitals.