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Rules of Engagement: Can Our Troops Defend Themselves?

Monday, 05 December 2005 12:00 AM

As American troops battle a ferocious insurgency in Iraq, new and subtle changes to a key military regulation may be frustrating their ability to defend themselves -judging from some e-mails received from the field that have, for instance, described some features of the current "rules of engagement" as "idiotic."

The rules of engagement (ROE) are, by formal definition, the directives issued by competent military authority that delineate the circumstances and limitations under which United States forces will initiate and/or continue combat engagement with other forces encountered.

Today, more than 150,000 American men and women serve as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, attempting to help establish a stable Iraqi government.

Complicating the task is a growing insurgency. The number of reported attacks during the month of October 2005 was a staggering 550 attacks per week. The average number of civilian casualties per day has now reached its highest recorded figure: more than 60 per day. In the last couple of weeks of November, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), was citing 700 insurgent attacks per week.

But have the rules of engagement changed in Iraq – just as the situation on the ground for the combat soldier seems at its most dangerous and deadly?

Buried in some new fine print in military regulations is a phrase that may hold the answer. It's hard to ferret out, as rules of engagement are for the most part classified as for "limited" distribution only.

First, there was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction (CJCSI) 3121.01A of 15 January 2000; then there was CJCSI 3121.01B of 13 June 2005. Promulgation of the unclassified version of the latter is limited, but the concern among some who have perused it is that the new regulation adds a few choice words that could spell a world of difference to the individual soldier fighting a dirty war in Iraq against urban guerrillas.

Well before the conflict in Iraq and up until apparently this past summer, U.S. combat troops found comforting words in the ROE for the individual fighter facing an unpredictable enemy, seeking to kill him or her through any trick or stratagem:

"Nothing in these ROE limit an individual soldier's right to defend himself or a commander's inherent authority and obligation to use all necessary means available and to take appropriate action to defend his unit and other U.S. and friendly forces in the vicinity."

And these words for the unit leader:

"These rules do not limit a commander's inherent authority and obligation to use all necessary means available and to take all appropriate actions in self-defense of the commander's unit and other U.S. forces in the vicinity."

However, the new standard ROE promulgated this past summer (CJCSI 3121.01B) has individual self-defense described as

Furthermore, the new regulation ominously adds some specific wording that says, "as such, commanders may limit the individual right of self-defense."

One informed source, a former military lawyer, noted to NewsMax that with the new language in place it is problematic to tell soldiers during their training that they have an inherent right to defend themselves. Indeed, the new rule can only add to the bewilderment and suspicion with which some soldiers regard ROE.

The new wording may be seen as a sort of capitulation to human rights groups which have complained that the military's rules of engagement for handling local citizens - at checkpoints, for instance - are too permissive.

One such group, Human Rights Watch, which has been around since 1978 when it was monitoring the compliance of Soviet bloc countries with the human rights provisions of the landmark Helsinki Accords, has summed up its concern this way:

"The U.S. military with responsibility for security in Baghdad is not deliberately targeting civilians. Neither is it doing enough to minimize harm to civilians as required by international law. Iraq is clearly a hostile environment for U.S. troops, with daily attacks by Iraqis or others opposed to the U.S. and coalition occupation. But such an environment does not absolve the military from its obligations to use force in a restrained, proportionate and discriminate manner, and only when strictly necessary."

But if there has been a sea-change in policy, the military has thus far been circumspect in making public the adjustment in its rules of engagement.

Last May – just before the ostensible change -- Lawrence Di Rita, a Pentagon spokesman, dodged a question at a news conference concerning the investigation at the time of a Marine who allegedly shot a wounded insurgent in the mosque in Fallujah.

The question: "The statement put out by the Marines says that this Marine's actions were consistent with the established rules of engagement. Are you able to tell us what those rules of engagement are?"

Di Rita responded by saying, "We don't discuss rules of engagement … because it's unsafe to our troops if we tell people what they're supposed to do to protect themselves. So we just don't discuss rules of engagement. But they have the right of self-defense at all times, and that's a consistent rule of engagement."

On November 22, 2005 - well after the wording change - Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, who commands the Multinational Corps Iraq, was at another press conference where the subject emerged of the deaths of members of an Iraqi family apparently killed by U.S. troops that week.

The question was: "Has there been any talk this week about changing the rules of engagement or clarifying the rules of engagement, or have any advisories gone out from you and your staff on being more careful or how to be more careful on this?"

Gen. Vines had this to say: "The loss of any innocent life - indeed, any life - is tragic. But we continually evaluate and investigate those, the loss of each life, to determine whether or not the rules of engagement were applied correctly,

"What we

For sure, if there has indeed been a closely-held change in ROE policy, it won't be the first variation on the theme.

On April 5, 2003, the Stars and Stripes noted another sea-change – from the early stages of the invasion of Iraq to that watershed day when some Iraqi forces ditched their uniforms and adopted guerrilla tactics.

"When we move in, you kill anything that moves," Lt. Col. John Charlton, commander of the 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, told his troops just hours before they assaulted a key position south of Baghdad.

"Nobody on the streets in the middle of the night, in the middle of a battle, is an innocent civilian," Capt. Scott Brannon, commander of the 1-15th scout platoon, qualified to the DoD newspaper.

Certainly, these were warranted tactics against an entrenched and determined enemy, but not necessarily the right stuff for winning the war for the minds and hearts of the Iraqi people - a campaign now seen as important as victory on the battlefield.

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As American troops battle a ferocious insurgency in Iraq, new and subtle changes to a key military regulation may be frustrating their ability to defend themselves -judging from some e-mails received from the field that have, for instance, described some features of the...
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