Civilian concerns mount

BAGHDAD OUTSKIRTS, Iraq — Gunfire erupts from a side street on the outskirts of Baghdad, sending Marines diving for cover. They crawl behind store fronts, scanning the area for their attackers.

Suddenly, a shout comes from a Marine armored vehicle, a loud and desperate American voice.

“It’s a woman! Don’t shoot!” the Marine rifleman screams in a shrill voice not far from a bridge near Baghdad. Out of view, the woman runs for cover. The Marine keeps shouting until she makes it as one of his comrades on the ground assures him: “We dig, we dig.”

The scene, which played out yesterday as Marines came under fire from rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s, highlights a growing question for military commanders and the troops themselves as they move into Baghdad: How do you battle the enemy without harming civilians?

The International Committee of the Red Cross said its workers in Baghdad reported several hundred wounded Iraqis and dozens of dead had been brought to four main city hospitals on Friday and on Saturday morning. Such Red Cross estimates don’t break down civilian versus military casualties.

Any fight for the Iraqi capital will put even more civilians in danger.

The streets of Baghdad have been filled with armed militiamen, and members of the Republican Guard have dug in. Some of the Iraqi forces are also believed to have melted into the population of 5 million, making it difficult for coalition troops to sort out normal civilians from “human shields” or guerrilla fighters.

“It comes down to discipline. Our Marines are being highly disciplined in terms of fire,” said Lt. B.P. McCoy, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. His unit was in front Sunday as the Marines pushed toward Baghdad.

“We’ve been successful at it so far. But the tougher the fighting is, the less restrained we’ll be,” McCoy said.

Marines say the rules of engagement, which spell out when U.S. troops can open fire, have been loosened because of surprise attacks by Iraqis. U.S. commanders say Iraqis have attacked after playing dead, pretending to surrender or feigning welcome for coalition forces.

Marine officers say their fire is extremely restrained, even though it means limiting the punch in their drive against Iraqi forces. Americans say the intent is to preserve both the Iraqi people and the country’s infrastructure.

Yet on the battlefield, the prospect for confusion grows daily. “There’s a guy in white, a lot of darting movement, keeping down real low,” a Marine told his unit commander during Sunday’s fight. “Request permission to take a potshot at him.”