[ “I don’t go near the Americans anymore, because I’m afraid they will kill me,” says Ali, an 11-year-old Iraqi child whose family had celebrated the U.S. capture of Saddam. –BL ]
Shooting death angers Iraqi family: US tactics in raid raise concerns
by Thanassis Cambanis
BAGHDAD — American soldiers stormed into Sajid Kadhum Bouri al-Bawi’s house three hours after midnight on May 17, breaking two doors and rousing the dozen children who live there.
An hour later, family members recalled, the soldiers led a hooded man from the house and told the family they were arresting Bawi. Only after the soldiers left with what appeared to be a prisoner did Bawi’s brother find his bloodied body, shot five times and stuffed behind a refrigerator underneath a pile of mattresses.
The US Army is investigating the shooting, and admits that Bawi was shot and killed by an American when, according to the soldiers involved, he tried to seize a soldier’s weapon.
Bawi’s slaying during the kind of routine night raid that is the military’s bread-and-butter counterinsurgency tactic raises questions about the control and supervision of soldiers on those raids, and the reliability of the local informants whose tips are often behind the arrest lists.
The events described by family members are chilling: They say Bawi was killed in his mother’s bedroom during an interrogation, while soldiers banged on metal doors to dull the sound of the shots.
The soldiers then pretended they were detaining Bawi, according to several members of the family who were present, parading another man in a dishdasha, or robe, through the darkened house to trick the family into thinking that the head of the household was still alive.
Brigadier General Jeffery Hammond, the number two commander of the First Armored Cavalry Division, which patrols Baghdad, said the shooting was unlikely to have occurred as described by the family.
”We have too many lines of supervision on any operation we do,” Hammond said. ”It would be hard for me to believe that could happen.”
In a terse statement released more than two weeks after Bawi’s death, after repeated visits by his relatives to military officers stationed near the slum where his family lives, the military admitted the shooting and said it had officially opened an investigation.
”According to a source, the Iraqi was an anti-Iraqi forces operative who bragged to his neighbors about murdering a First Cavalry soldier at a checkpoint,” the statement said.
Acting on the informant’s tip, soldiers raided the house in Kamalaya, a mostly Shi’ite slum south of the Sadr City section of Baghdad.
”It is reported that during the raid, the Iraqi attempted to grab the weapon of a US soldier who shot and killed the subject,” the statement said.
Through a spokesman, Hammond said it would be inappropriate to comment any further before the investigation was complete. It is not clear when that will be, nor has other information been disclosed regarding the identity of the unit or the names of the soldiers involved. In the past year, investigations into shootings by US troops have taken anywhere from a few weeks to several months.
It was not clear why the interrogation of Bawi took place in his house, rather than at an American base after his arrest.
The shooting, as recalled by a half-dozen family members present the night of the raid, has left deep scars on the family. The Bawis live in a two-story home on a narrow dirt lane just off the main road in Kamalaya. On the night of the raid, Bawi, his wife, and five children were sleeping in the front room, the only one with an air conditioner.
According to the family, US soldiers, accompanied by a translator, a group of Iraqi Civil Defense Corps soldiers, and an informant — hooded to mask his identity — entered the house. They demanded to know where Bawi was, and the hulking man — he was 6 feet 6 inches tall and weighed about 265 pounds — immediately identified himself.
Bawi was taken to an empty bedroom just behind the living room, family members said. The soldiers roused the families of two other brothers, who live in the same house. In a standard practice, they held the three other men in the house in the kitchen, and separately kept the women and children in the living room, where they sat on the mattresses in front of a wall-sized mural depicting the battle of Karbala, the signal event in the founding of Shi’ite Islam.
The soldiers found a machine gun in the upstairs bedroom belonging to Haidar Bawi, one of Bawi’s brothers.
”I could only hear muffled sounds from the other room,” said Wathiq Jawad Kadhum, 27, a nephew who was held in the kitchen during the roughly 45 minutes that soldiers interrogated his uncle in the bedroom.
Kadhum, his brother Muthanah Kadhum, and his uncle Haidar Bawi were handcuffed and kept on their knees at gunpoint, they said.
Several times, the translator and an American officer came to the kitchen and addressed the three men. ”They said, Sajid is in the resistance, isn’t he?” Wathiq Kadhum said. ”They asked me, what do you do?”
About half an hour into the interrogation, Wathiq Kadhum and Muthanah Kadhum said they heard Bawi shout, ”Oh, you bastard!” Then, they said, a series of gunshots rang out. A soldier kicked the metal door to the washroom, the family theorized, perhaps to mask the noise of the bullets.
The translator and officer came to the kitchen and told the relatives they had test-fired the confiscated weapon. Wathiq Kadhum said he demanded to know what happened.
”The translator told me, shut up, don’t ask questions,” he said. Someone — in the darkened kitchen, he could not tell who — then hit him in the face with the butt of a gun, he said. His forehead bears a seven-stitch scar, and videotapes from his uncle’s funeral show a bandage around his forehead with a streak of blood.
”Anyone who moves, we’ll kill him,” Muthanah Kadhum said the translator told him.
Shortly before 4 a.m., the soldiers left, taking with them a hooded man wearing one of Bawi’s white robes, family members said.
The family regrouped in the yard.
”It was ordinary. We thought they had taken Sajid and maybe they would return him within a month,” said his brother Nasser Bawi, 36, who lives in the next-door house, which is separated from Bawi’s by a 3-foot-wide alley. He had waited in front of the house during the raid with another brother, Qasim Bawi, 40, and with a group of neighbors.
”We were sure he was just arrested and would come back.”
One neighbor brought wire cutters to remove the plastic cuffs binding the hands of the three men.
When the power came back on, family members and neighbors filtered into the house to survey the mess and damage left from the soldiers’ search — cabinet doors askew, doors broken, bedding and clothes thrown to the floor.
That’s when Hathima Hakim, Nasser Bawi’s mother, saw a pair of feet protruding from under a mattress.
”It was as if the ceiling had opened up and dropped him,” she said. She screamed: ”It’s Sajid!”
Nasser Bawi came running, thinking that American soldiers had brought his brother home.
”I found him soaked in blood,” he said, breaking into sobs as he stood next to the same refrigerator that had partially hidden Bawi’s body.
The coroner’s report from the Baghdad Morgue, dated May 29, said Bawi had five bullet wounds: two in the torso, near the heart; two on his left side; and one in his right thigh.
Qasim Bawi represented the family in several visits to a nearby US base, the first one a few days after the funeral.
At an officer’s request, he brought letters — from neighborhood and tribal councils, from an Islamic charity, and from the actors’ union — attesting to Bawi’s good character.
According to his brothers, Bawi, like the rest of the family, welcomed the United States as liberators. ”When Saddam was captured, he hired a band for the neighborhood,” Qasim Bawi said.
Family snapshots show Wathiq Kadhum, the brother with the forehead scar, frolicking in a waterfall last summer, his arm around a female US soldier.
Now the family lives in fear. The children said they can’t sleep. Knocks at the door make the men jump.
Ali, at 11 the eldest of Bawi’s children, said he has a recurrent nightmare in which he cannot find his family. ”I don’t go near the Americans anymore, because I’m afraid they will kill me,” Ali said.
Bawi’s relatives say they want an apology from the Army, a trial for the person who shot him, and only then, financial compensation.
Qasim and Nasser Bawi think the soldiers were tricked by an Iraqi informant who had a personal gripe against their slain brother, a well-known figure in the neighborhood who ran a business renting tents and chairs for funerals.
They do not have a guess as to who the informant was, but they refer to him as ”Hassan,” because one of the neighbors contends he heard an American soldier say, ”No, Hassan,” to the informant as they left the house.
Less than a month before his death, Bawi starred as Abbas, a founding figure of Shi’ite Islam, in a Sadr City production.
His brothers scoffed at the allegation that Bawi had killed an American soldier, or that he fought the soldiers who were interrogating him during the raid. ”He was so fat, he couldn’t run,” Nasser Bawi said. ”How could he be in the resistance?”
With school over for the summer and their mother in mourning, Sajid Bawi’s five children stay in the house all day. The women cry ritualistically, especially when visitors come. They refuse to clean a spot of blood on the wall where they say Bawi was shot, or replace a shattered windowpane, or move the refrigerator into its proper place.
”They think they have killed one man,” Qasim Bawi said. ”They have killed the whole family.”