mistakes can occur

and when they do, there are two responses. Denial, or taking responsibility. It's not clear whose bomb was dropped on the Iraqi marketplace on Friday, killing a large number of civilians. Estimates range from 15 (NYT) to 50 (Yahoo) casualties.

It is reassuring that there hasn't been an outright denial by the Pentagon - a pause for an investigation suggests honesty, whereas quick PR statements reveal political motives. The Pentagon has equivocated thus far:

US Central Command had said that its aircraft fired on Iraqi rocket launchers in the area and that civilian casualties could not always be avoided. There was no categoric admission of responsibility, however, and the Pentagon claimed later that an Iraqi surface-to-air missile could have fallen back on the market.

�Coalition forces did not target a marketplace nor were any bombs or missiles dropped or fired in the district,� Major-General Stanley McChrystal said. �We don�t know for a fact whether it was US or Iraqi. We can�t make any assumption at this point. We�ll continue to look and see if we missed anything. But another explanation could be that triple-A (anti-aircraft artillery) or a surface-to-air missile that missed its target fell back into the marketplace area.�

(note that the Times Online, unlike the Pentagon, has already reached a conclusion about whose fault the marketplace bombing was, as per the title of their report. What did I say above about quick statements...). Explicit in Stanley's statement is the possibility that it was indeed a US missile and not Iraqi sabotage. This explicit acknowledgement is not even registered by those who are already primed to anticipate US-caused atrocities, they simply see a denial. But any assessment of US fault prior to the Pentagon's report is clearly an opportunitsic, political onem given that US forces have tried to avoid civilian deaths and Iraqi forces have been capitalizing on them. We are bearing the burden for our forebearance.

On the other side of the coin from the London Times and the Guardian, is the certainty that these are political bombings by Iraq on its own people. This is usually where reminders about Halabja are also trotted out. Tacitus (whom I repect greatly) points to an AP/Yahoo photo of the supposed bomb crater, arguing that a Tomohawk or JDAM wouldn't leave such a shallow hole. Agreed, but why assume this was a precision weapon strike, especially given that it landed in the wrong place? Recall that 90% of the bombs on Baghdad are precision-guided, meaning that 10% ARE NOT. In fact, I doubt that the AP photo is even of the right crater, given that the scenes of carnage have been bloody and horrific, but this is a fairly antiseptic picture of a hole in the ground, surrounded by curious well-groomed onlookers, not the crowds of grieving and bloodied victims and twisted metal that the center of the marketplace bombing would suggest.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter what we think about who caused the bombing. The main point is what do the Iraqi public think? It is their opinion that is so central to our entire rationale for invading Iraq in teh first place. And there the US has to concede that - regardless of fault - this event will be seen as US fault by the grieving civilians who have lost their families. Philosophical arguments about the inevitably of collateral damage, or detailed explanations of Saddam's treachery, are absolutely irrelevant, except to armchair pundits whose only motivation is to tally events in the "our fault/their fault" columns.

We have a responsibility, to allow Iraqis to grieve, and respect the forces of emotion that we have tried to harness in this war - which are a double-edged sword indeed. I think that of all the commentary on these bombings, the only real analysis of any value has been Jeanne's:

Imagine reading a newspaper on September 12, 2001, and havng to comb through paragraph after paragraph of statements politicians made about a horrible mass murder that took place a day earlier, before finally, halfway through the story, finding out exactly what happened. The idea of structuring the story that way is obscene, as if the fact that thousands of people died were less important than what use politicians made of those deaths. Human priorities were not hard to sort out on September 12. When people die like that, the only thing to do at first is grieve. The only thing to do second is celebrate their lives. Anything else is an abomination. When a few clueless leftists spoke -- even weeks afterwards -- of understanding "root causes," they were, and deserved to be, castigated. To every thing there is a season, and the season of understanding can not follow too hard upon the season of grief.

We understood that when Americans died. We need to understand that the same thing is true when Iraqis die.

Jeanne links to the coverage by other newspapers around the world that tell the human side of teh tragedy, and I felt it was my duty to read each one. NPR had a similar piece this morning on Weekend Edition which was also poignant and grim. These are essential reading/listening for all of us, regardless of where we stand about the war.

UPDATE: serial numbers found at the site suggest it was an American HARM missile (via Tim Blair). This is *still* irrelevant (though note that if true, it means there was an Iraqi active radar sited in the marketplace. Human shields.). The main issue is, collateral damage (origin red or blue) is ultimately a defeat for our goals in Iraq. And irrelevant to the human tragedy. Whether it was iraqi targeting, iraqi radar that led an american missile in, or even an errant american "dumb" bomb - the bottom line is, that the Iraqi civilians are sufferring.

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