Pakistanis protest civilian deaths in U.S. drone attacks

ISLAMABAD — Victims of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan took to the streets for the first time here Friday, as a new report claims that there are significant numbers of civilian casualties from the strikes and a lawsuit seeks hundreds of millions of dollars in damages from the CIA for those mistakenly injured or killed.

Fifteen people injured in the attacks or who claimed to have had family members killed in the bombardment appeared in public Friday and officially joined the $500 million lawsuit that began last month with just one claimant in the Pakistani courts.

"Muslim blood has become a business," said Samiullah, a 21-year-old student who goes by one name and is from a village near Mir Ali, in North Waziristan, part of the militant-plagued tribal area. "If they really were killing extremists, the deaths from drone strikes would be lessening the insurgency, which it isn't."

Samiullah's house was hit on Aug. 11, 2009, as the family ate breakfast. Three of his young cousins were killed and part of the home and two cars were destroyed, he said.

Friday's small but fiery protest was hijacked by hard-line mullahs and other religious hotheads, who denounced the CIA and the Pakistani government and demanded an immediate end to the drone strikes. Those who addressed the rally included Abdul Aziz Ghazi, the cleric from Islamabad's radical Red Mosque, who's voiced support for al Qaida in the past, and Hameed Gul, a former Pakistani spymaster who gives strong vocal support to the Afghan Taliban. Some 300 people attended the rally.

"Today the spirit of jihad is alive in the people. We should not be afraid of dying," said Ghazi, who was released from a Pakistani jail in 2009 after two years in custody for trying to establish an Islamic state inside the mosque compound.

Pakistan's Islamist movement and many ordinary citizens condemn their government for cooperating with the U.S. war on terrorism, in particular its clandestine support for the drones. Pakistan's Taliban routinely cite revenge for drone attacks when carrying out terrorist attacks in their own country, leading many Pakistanis to think they're paying an unacceptably high price for the country's alliance with the U.S.

There's been a massive ramp-up in drone strikes under the Obama administration, a weapon the U.S. considers highly effective, particularly against Taliban and al Qaida extremists based across the border from Afghanistan in Pakistan's remote tribal area.

The lawsuit, which stands little chance being won, is lodged against the CIA station chief in Islamabad, identified as Jonathan Banks, CIA Director Leon Panetta and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. There's speculation that the publicity has compromised the position of the CIA chief in Pakistan. The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad refused to confirm that Banks was the right person.

"What CIA station chief? I can't talk about employees," embassy spokesman Alberto Rodriguez said.

There was no way of verifying the stories of the drone victims who've come forward. They all denied links to militants and claimed that the strikes were hitting mostly civilians. They described a terrifying existence under the drones in North Waziristan, the focus of the strikes.

A 13-year-old boy, Saddam Hussain, said that he lost his 10-month-old niece and sister-in-law in a strike on their house on the night of Oct. 9, in the Datta Khel area of North Waziristan. Hussain carried a large picture of the baby girl with him.

"The drones patrol day and night. The sound comes when they fly lower down. Sometimes we see six in the air all at once," Saddam said. "When they come down, people run out of their houses, even at night."

Saddullah, a 15-year-old who goes by one name, also had made the journey from North Waziristan. He lost an eye and both legs in a drone strike last year, near Mir Ali town, he said. Three family members died, including an uncle who used a wheelchair. He said that instead of his three relatives, it was reported at the time that the strike killed three Taliban commanders.

"I was drinking tea with my family ... when it struck," said the shy 15-year-old, who now walks on prosthetic legs.

There was another drone strike Friday, adding to the 107 already recorded this year, according to a tally by the New America Foundation, an independent research organization based in Washington. That compares with 53 hits in 2009 and 34 in 2008. Of the strikes this year, 97 percent have been in North Waziristan, where a witch's brew of jihadist groups are based, including the Haqqani network, possibly the most effective insurgent outfit in Afghanistan.

Since the strikes began in 2004, 1,286 to 1,981 people have died in the bombardment, according to the New America Foundation. At least 32 senior al Qaida, Afghan Taliban or Pakistani Taliban commanders were killed in those strikes. Many of the rest would be midlevel militants and foot soldiers. It's broadly thought that the strikes are often accurate, but the number of civilians who are dying, from faulty intelligence or collateral damage, is unknown.

Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, a U.S.-based human rights group, said in a report this week that unnamed U.S. officials had put civilian deaths from drone strikes at 20 to 30 since the beginning of last year. Yet CIVIC's own small sample of nine strikes uncovered 30 civilian deaths, including at least 14 women and children.

The U.S. estimates of civilian casualties are far too low, said Christopher Rogers, Pakistan field fellow at CIVIC. "There's no accountability, no one is keeping count of the civilian deaths and no compensation is paid."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

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