Military hopes lasers help cut civilian deaths

BAGHDAD, Iraq – The U.S. military is deploying a laser device in Iraq that would temporarily blind drivers who fail to heed warnings at checkpoints, in an attempt to stem shootings of innocent Iraqis.

The pilot project would equip thousands of M-4 rifles with the 101/2-inch-long weapon, which projects an intense beam of green light to “dazzle” the vision of oncoming drivers.

“I think this is going to make a huge difference in avoiding these confrontations,” said Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the commander in charge of day-to-day operations in Iraq. “I promise you no one – no one – will be able to ignore it.”

But so-called tactical laser devices have been controversial in the past. A protocol to the Geneva Conventions bans the use of lasers that cause blindness, and human rights groups have protested previous U.S. attempts to employ such weapons.

A decade ago, the experimental use of tactical laser devices by Marines in Somalia was curtailed at the last minute for “humane reasons,” according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which called their use “repugnant to the public conscience” in a 1995 report.

The Pentagon has canceled several programs for the stronger “blinding” lasers, in adherence with the Geneva protocol, according to Human Rights Watch. But the group has said that even less powerful “dazzling” lasers, similar to the one to be deployed in Iraq, can cause permanent damage.

One Washington-based defense analyst said American troops and commanders should not underestimate how the laser could complicate relations with Iraqis.

“If this ‘safe’ high-intensity laser damages retinas, we’re in for a whole new type of (angry) Iraqi civilians,” said Winslow Wheeler, who spent three decades as a Capitol Hill staffer and now outside critic at the Center for Defense Information.

The military, however, has apparently decided the risks can be minimized through proper training and are worth taking to help U.S. troops ward off suicide attacks and to reduce accidental shootings of Iraqi civilians.

“I have no doubt,” Chiarelli said, “that bullets are less safe.”

A military standards panel analyzed the laser – a modification of a more powerful system used for aiming heavy machine guns – and found that the device could be harmful to the eyes when viewed from roughly 75 yards or closer, the manufacturer said.

Lt. Col. Richard Smith, the deputy director of the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate at the Pentagon, said Wednesday the deployment of the laser, which has been under development for a decade, marked an important milestone for nonlethal weapons.

“This is really the first time the visually overwhelming devices have actually been used,” Smith said. “This was based off needs of war fighters and commanders in the field. They have several incidents a day where a vehicle is coming at a group of soldiers. … These dazzlers can reach out a couple hundred meters and give solders added security.”

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