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Laser 'optical incapacitator' issued in Iraq

Reuters | May 19 2006

The U.S. military has given troops in Iraq a laser device to temporarily blind drivers who ignore warnings at vehicle checkpoints, the Pentagon said on Thursday.

Army Lt. Col. Barry Venable, a Pentagon spokesman, defended its use as legal and said the devices were intended to prevent civilians from being shot.

"There have been numerous incidents that tragically have resulted in civilian deaths" in which drivers approaching U.S. military checkpoints have failed to heed warnings from troops, who in some cases have opened fire, he said.

The U.S. military is fitting some M-4 rifles used by U.S. forces in Iraq with a tube-shaped device that is about 10 1/2 inches (27 cm) long that shines a laser beam. Venable stressed that the devices do not cause permanent blindness.

"They don't blind people. It's like shining a big light in your eyes," Venable said. "I think the term is optical incapacitation -- dazzlers as opposed to something that will blind you."

Venable said he did not know how long the "optical incapacitation" effect lasted.

"These are not illegal weapons. And in fact, calling them weapons would be a misnomer," Venable said. "They are a warning device intended to be inserted into the escalation-of-force process to minimize unnecessary casualties. You could call it a nonlethal weapon if you must call it a weapon."

"We haven't developed, acquired or fielded any blinding laser weapons that are designed to cause permanent blindness," Venable added.

Venable said he did not know how widespread the usage of the devices was in Iraq. The Los Angeles Times first reported the use of the devices.

In the 3-year-old war, violence at military checkpoints has been frequent, with American forces sometimes opening fire on cars and trucks that ignore warnings to stop or come too close. Insurgents often have attacked troops at checkpoints, sometimes with car bombs. But civilians also have been shot in incidents that resulted from apparent misunderstandings.

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