Today in Middle Eastern history: the Amiriyah shelter bombing (1991)

If you were under the impression that the Gulf War air campaign was all precision strikes, the Amiriyah bombing should disabuse you of that notion. Amiriyah was an air-raid shelter in Baghdad that the US military concluded was some kind of command-and-control center because of all the people (terrified civilians, as it turned out) who kept coming and going to and from the structure. Despite evidence that the building was being used as a civilian shelter, the USAF determined that it was a military facility and put it on the target list, and its number came up on February 13, 1991. Here’s how The Washington Post reported it:

Relatives sobbed helplessly in a middle-class Baghdad neighborhood today as rescue workers brought out bodies — most of them mangled, many of them charred beyond recognition, some still smoldering — from the bombed-out structure where Iraqi civilians had taken shelter from U.S. raids.

“I saw one man, incoherent with grief, fall to the ground and bury his face in the earth. Eleven members of his family had been in the shelter,” Alan Little, of the British Broadcasting Corp., reported from the scene.

At Yarmuk Hospital, nearby, Omar Adnan, 17, covered with bruises and burns, was shown by television cameras as he explained in a faint voice that his three sisters, his mother and his father had been killed and he was the only one left in his family.

“I was sleeping and suddenly I felt heat and the blanket was burning,” he said. “I turned to try to touch my mother who was next to me but grabbed nothing but a piece of flesh.”

Horrific. The Bush 41 administration, for what it’s worth, maintained that the structure was a command-and-control bunker beneath a civilian bomb shelter, in effect making the civilians human shields. I’m not sure anybody else agrees with that assessment, but even if it were accurate, as a Human Rights Watch report later argued, steps still should have been taken to minimize civilian casualties:

The bombing of the air raid shelter in the residential Ameriyya quarter of western Baghdad took place at approximately 4:30 am on February 13, killing between 200 and 300 civilians, according to various Iraqi reports — the highest reported death toll from a single allied attack during the entire air war. Under the principles established in international humanitarian law, the U.S. should have taken steps to ensure that what at least previously was known to be a civilian defense shelter was no longer considered a safe haven by the civilian population. Specifically, under the principles of the laws of war, the Ameriyya shelter should have been protected from attack until such time as U.S. forces gave a warning to the Iraqi civilian population that the facility was no longer considered a protected shelter and provided sufficient time to elapse so that warning could be heeded.

Fortunately, the United States never made a mistake like this again, the end.

The roof of the Amiriyah shelter, post-bombing (via)

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