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U.S. tactics deserve respect

Local editorial

Our troops are taking unprecedented care to minimize civilian casualties

Whether they agree or disagree with the United States' involvement in the war on Iraq, virtually no one in this country supports the regime of Saddam Hussein. It has proven over the past two decades to be among the most repressive and brutal on the face of the earth.

The regime's actions so far in this war have done nothing to improve that image, using civilians as military shields, gunning down its own people trying to flee to safety and resorting to terrorism in fighting coalition forces.

Yet it is the United States and the coalition that have come in for most of the criticism over civilian casualties, despite the extraordinary lengths the forces have gone to in attempting to minimize injuries and deaths to noncombatants.

Much of that criticism is political in origin and much of it is based on the notion that if the United States had not entered into war, the civilians would not be endangered by bullets and bombs. That is true, but misses the point: Any broad-scale war will jeopardize innocents, but once that war is begun, it is the combatants' duty to make every reasonable effort to avoid civilian casualties.

From what we have seen, read and heard, the U.S. and coalition forces are making that effort. Meanwhile, there is much evidence that the Iraqis are intentionally putting civilians at risk. Consider the contrasts:

The coalition attackers are using very precise ' and very expensive ' missiles and bombs as they try to hit military and strategic targets. It would be much simpler, and the war much easier to wage, if the coalition turned a blind eye to the safety of civilians and waged all-out war on enemy strongholds in cities like Basra and Baghdad. Coalition troops are also providing humanitarian relief and at times risking their own lives to save Iraqi civilians.

The coalition has come in for criticism from some corners for not being aggressive enough. A retired Army colonel called the approach unrealistic: No country and no military force in recorded history has ever attempted to simultaneously fight and win a war, preserve the resources and infrastructure of the country, reduce noncombatant deaths to the absolute minimum within their capabilities and conduct a major humanitarian effort.

The coalition's operations stand in stark contrast to the Iraqi approach, despite the fact that the civilians at risk are Iraqis. The military and paramilitary leaders have forced civilians to fight at gunpoint, have marched children out in front of Iraqi fighters, have shot down civilians trying to flee from Basra and in at least one case killed a woman whose crime was to wave to coalition forces. They have also dressed as civilians in terrorist attacks on troops, thereby putting true civilians at even more risk.

Coalition forces have unquestionably been responsible for civilian deaths. But those deaths ' such as the family whose vehicle was destroyed Monday ' appear to have been honest mistakes made in the turmoil of battle.

You may disagree with the war effort, but the military deserves respect for the effort it is making to preserve civilian lives. The Iraqis deserve contempt for their tactics.