Wednesday, April 05, 2006

For Iraqi Soldiers, Gun Misfires Lead To Injuries, Deaths

By Antonio Castaneda, Associated Press
San Diego Union-Tribune
April 4, 2006

BIDIMNAH, Iraq – The two bloodied, wincing Iraqi soldiers – bandages wrapped around their legs – hobbled onto the waiting ambulance, wounded during a house-to-house search near this farming town.

The culprit was a common one: not insurgents, but gunfire from fellow soldiers. U.S. trainers who mentor Iraqi troops say a lack of gun safety, or what they call “muzzle discipline,” has led to many injuries and deaths across the country.

And while the Americans say it is slowly getting better, it remains a major problem for a U.S. military trying to train more than 200,000 Iraqis to fight the insurgency.

“When we first got here, it was a little scary,” said Army Capt. Steven Fischer, a trainer from Washington, Pa. “We have to correct it. It's something that's got to be better.”

In the Bidimnah case in late January, insurgents first fired on Iraqi and U.S. troops patrolling the rural area about 50 miles west of Baghdad. That prompted more than a minute of wild, continuous gunfire from the Iraqi troops. The two Iraqi soldiers were wounded while the militants escaped unharmed.

Other examples are rife and often startling:

In December in the town of Adhaim north of Baghdad, an Iraqi soldier stepped out of a vehicle with his safety lever turned off and accidentally shot himself point-blank in the chest. Minutes later, as a U.S. helicopter carried the dying man away, an Associated Press reporter saw a frustrated U.S. soldier storm up and lecture another Iraqi soldier, who also did not have his safety on.

During a large-scale operation last summer in Baghdad, an antsy Iraqi soldier took aim at what he thought was an insurgent, prompting several other Iraqi soldiers to drill hundreds of rounds into an empty home. No one was injured.

Iraq had a million-man army under Saddam Hussein, but soldiers who served in the old army said they were given only a few bullets a year – apparently a way to prevent coups. That practice left Iraqi troops untrained in the most basic of soldiering skills.

Iraq now has tens of thousands of rookie soldiers who only recently learned how to use a weapon. And misfires have led to dozens of military deaths.

Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, distributed a letter in October saying that misfires had killed more than 75 coalition troops. He did not specify if the victims were Iraqis, Americans or others, and he also did not say who the shooters were.

“The failure to properly clear weapons and maintain muzzle awareness led to these unnecessary losses,” Casey wrote in the letter, which was posted at bases across Iraq and viewed by an AP reporter.

Warning signs also are posted at U.S. bases across Iraq, such as one at Camp Ar Ramadi that instructs U.S. soldiers to be alert to the threat.

“Recently there have been several negligent discharges that have resulted in non-battle injuries to our personnel,” read the sign. “Hold our partnered Iraqi forces to these same standards,” it warns, after listing safety rules.

The problem is hardly unique to Iraq: Armies across Africa and the Third World are notorious for their lack of safety procedures. But the problem is particularly acute in Iraq, where thousands with automatic weapons are on alert for insurgents.

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