Faced with a restive populace and a relentless insurgency, some U.S. forces are turning to electricity-spewing Tasers and other “non-lethal” weapons to help keep order in Iraq. But the Pentagon’s foray into these unconventional arms is facing opposition from some military commanders and criticism from human-rights activists.

Tasers, the high-voltage stun guns that fire bursts of electricity, and non-lethal “capabilities sets” containing rubber bullets and riot batons have been distributed to hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq, according to military personnel and a report prepared for the Army. A thousand more troops are expected to be similarly equipped soon.

The weapons are designed to give troops new tools to quell resistance, control crowds and subdue Iraqi prisoners of war. But while some soldiers in Iraq like the devices, others in the military think they are too mild to be used in the often-bloody Iraqi danger zone. Non-military critics contend the weapons are unnecessarily brutal.

Supporters say the devices can help U.S. troops get a handle on Iraq’s volatile conditions.

“These are tools to enable commanders to break the cycle of violence,” said retired Lt. Col. Wesley Barbour, a contract employee in the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. “Instead of shooting them dead and promoting further violence, you modify their behavior.”

Barbour recently led a military team in Iraq that trained 110 U.S. soldiers in weapons designed to hurt but not kill.

The Taser’s intimidation value, according to a report by Barbour, became clear at a prisoner-of-war camp holding “high-value detainees currently depicted in the `deck of cards’ “– the list of the 55 most wanted leaders of Saddam Hussein’s government.

Members of the 800th Military Police Brigade had to use lethal force several times to quell prisoner uprisings, the report says. But such rebellions reportedly came to an end after a military police officer demonstrated the Taser’s power–more than 50,000 volts of electricity, enough to cause muscles to fail after a shock of a few seconds.

When the prisoners saw the demonstration, “they moved away, they got in line,” said Sgt. Maj. Charles Slider, who teaches at the Military Police School in Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., and was part of Barbour’s team in Iraq.

Amnesty International has called on the U.S. and its allies to stop using Tasers “until there has been a full and independent investigation into the medical and other effects of these weapons and it has been proved that such weapons can be used in accordance with the international human-rights standards.”

James Lewis, a defense analyst with Washington’sCenter for Strategic and International Studies, calls such a demand misguided.

“These technologies always seem to generate concerns about mistreated prisoners and abused human rights,” he said. “But if the choice is between an M-16 rifle and a Taser, which would we have them use?”

In all, 36 Army platoons of about 30 soldiers have been issued non-lethal weapons. They do not include the stun guns, which were issued separately, but do contain flash-bang grenades, rubber bullets and wooden batons, as well as face guards, shields and other traditional components of riot gear.
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