U.S., Iraqi Troops Strive to Protect Mosques
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 20, 2004 Strict discipline among coalition troops and precision weaponry are credited with ensuring minimal damage to mosques and other sacred buildings during anti-insurgent operations in Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq, a senior defense official in Baghdad told reporters today.
Only after it has been conclusively proven that the mosque is being used to launch attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces and therefore has lost its "protected status" under established rules of engagement does it become fair game for attack, the official explained during a conference call interview.
His remarks came one day after 36 Iraqi commandos, backed up by U.S. forces, raided the Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad, long associated with anti-American activity. "We found what we think were enemy that had come out of Fallujah and sought refuge there," the official said. "All the right indicators to go in there were present. They felt they had the intelligence and were doing the right thing."
However, the raid, staged after Friday prayers, "could have been timed better," the official said. "We still have after-action critiquing to do," he added.
He said skirmishes following the incident in several areas of the city "have calmed down." News reports said insurgents armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades attacked U.S. and Iraqi troops in several Sunni areas of the city.
The defense official said U.S. forces use the utmost of care once senior leaders make the call that it's necessary to attack a mosque. "We work hard to only take out the enemy" and to inflict as little damage as possible, the official said.
"An example would be a sniper in a minaret," he said. "Instead of putting a 500-pound bomb in the mosque itself, we would put a Hellfire (air-to-ground missile) or main gun tank round in the minaret so we could limit the destruction."
The official acknowledged that this cautious approach may have added to the coalition's casualty toll. "In many cases, we may have taken additional casualties trying to take a mosque with ground forces instead of destroying it," he said.
When necessary, however, he acknowledged that the U.S. military has "dropped some munitions on mosques when they have lost their protected status."
In Fallujah, the same mosques previously used by insurgents to stage attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces now are being used to distribute humanitarian supplies to local citizens returning to their homes.
Public address systems in the mosques the insurgents had used to inflame the city now are being used by U.S. and Iraqi forces to urge the last enemy holdouts in the city to surrender and to get word out to residents about the availability of food, water and medical supplies, the official said.