On the March 7 edition of Westwood One's The Radio Factor, host Bill O'Reilly baselessly asserted that "The Washington Post and New York Times ... don't want checkpoints in Iraq." O'Reilly's claim apparently referred to recent articles by the Post and the Times documenting the frequency of civilian casualties at U.S. checkpoints in Iraq; these articles follow a March 4 incident in which an Italian intelligence agent was killed and an Italian journalist was wounded by U.S. soldiers at one such checkpoint. But neither newspaper has advocated eliminating the checkpoints.
A March 7 Post article reported that the March 4 shooting was "one of many incidents in which civilians have been killed by mistake at checkpoints in Iraq, including local police officers, women and children, according to military records, U.S. officials and human rights groups." Staff writers R. Jeffrey Smith and Ann Scott Tyson also noted criticism by human rights groups of the rules under which U.S. soldiers operate the checkpoints:
Human rights groups have complained that the military's rules of engagement for handling local citizens at checkpoints are too permissive. The groups have accused U.S. forces of making inadequate efforts to safeguard civilians and to comply with laws of war that prohibit the use of excessive or indiscriminate force and permit deadly action only when soldiers' lives are clearly threatened.
But the human rights groups quoted by Smith and Tyson did not advocate elimination of the checkpoints, nor did the writers themselves. Rather, they noted that the groups called for changes in how the checkpoints are conducted:
[Human Rights Watch] called for more efforts to warn of checkpoint dangers, including the use of better signs and lights, more interpreters, and a public education campaign. News accounts have detailed at least 14 other deaths of civilians at checkpoints.
A March 7 Times article, by John F. Burns, took a somewhat different approach. While noting that the checkpoints are "a situation fraught with hazards thousands of Iraqis face every day," the article focused on the U.S. military's rules of engagement. As Burns noted: "American soldiers operate under rules of engagement that give them authority to open fire whenever they have reason to believe that they or others in their unit may be at risk of suicide bombings or other insurgent attacks."
A March 8 Times editorial advocated additional safety precautions for the creation and maintenance of U.S. checkpoints in Iraq but did not assert, as O'Reilly claimed, that it did not "want checkpoints in Iraq":
No one can fault an American G.I. at a checkpoint who fires on a car that refuses to stop, because the insurgency has targeted such checkpoints with impunity. But with every additional civilian who is killed by American fire, the human cost rises -- both in terms of the lives lost and the psychological damage suffered by the Americans in uniform.
It is the responsibility of those at the top of the chain of command -- the ones who write these rules of engagement -- to make sure that such rules are as close to mistake-proof as possible. That means studying hard the approach to each and every checkpoint put up by the United States military to make sure civilians understand that they should slow down. It means studying tactics used by others, like the British in Northern Ireland and the Israelis in the occupied territories, to gather every shred of useful information out there about how to construct checkpoints in a way that makes their presence obvious to anyone.