Report says US attack on media hotel was avoidable

A US Abrams tank fires towards the Palestine Hotel on 8 April

The shelling of Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel by a US tank and the deaths of two of the 100 journalists staying there should never have happened, a report claims.

The investigation by the US Committee to Protect Journalists, called Permission to Fire, provides new details of the incident, in which three other journalists were wounded, suggesting the attack, while not deliberate, was avoidable.

The CPJ has renewed its call for the Pentagon to conduct a thorough and public investigation. “Such a public accounting is necessary, not only to determine the cause of this incident, but also to ensure that similar episodes do not occur in the future,” says its report.

The committee has learned that Pentagon officials, as well as commanders on the ground in Baghdad, knew the hotel was full of international journalists and were intent on not hitting it. But these senior officers apparently failed to convey their concern to the tank commander who fired on the hotel.

The CPJ report is based on interviews with a dozen reporters who were at the scene of the attack, including two embedded journalists, who monitored radio traffic before and after the shelling, and journalists who witnessed the strike from the hotel.

During intense fighting on the morning of the shelling, a US battalion met stiff resistance from Iraqi forces. Embedded Associated Press reporter Chris Tomlinson monitored radio communication within the company unit and discovered a frantic search for a “spotter”, who was guiding attacks against the Americans.

During this search a US tank officer believed he had sighted a person with binoculars in the hotel.

The US has given various explanations for the shelling, alleging its troops came under “significant enemy fire” from the hotel, that there was an Iraqi bunker next door and that Iraqi fire came from the hotel’s lobby.

But the CPJ report says there is “simply no evidence” to support claims that US forces were returning hostile fire from the hotel.

Reuters, whose cameraman Taras Protsyuk was killed in the attack, is conducting its own investigation. “We are still pursuing a detailed response from the US authorities, including answers to a number of key questions which are still open,” said global head of news Steve Jukes.

“The CPJ’s investigation also suggests that a senior US officer immediately reprimanded the tank commander for hitting the hotel. This all points to a break-down in communications. But without access to the US military, we are unlikely to obtain answers.”

SPANISH LEGAL MOVE

Relatives of the Spanish cameraman killed in the shelling have asked their country’s high court to investigate, put on trial and provisionally jail three US soldiers for war crimes. It is understood the family of Jose Couso submitted a document to the court this week stating: “The facts related constitute from the perspective of international law ‘war crimes’.” Caruso, 37, was a cameraman for Spain’s Telecinco TV channel.

By Jean Morgan

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