Shooting of reporter in Iraq was justified, U.S. report says

Knight Ridder NewspapersOctober 1, 2005 

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A U.S. military investigation of the June 24 shooting death of Yasser Salihee, a Knight Ridder Iraqi correspondent, confirmed that he was killed by an American soldier and then left dead in his car, splattered with blood and shattered glass in the middle of the street.

The 3rd Infantry Division's report concluded the shooting was justified because the soldiers thought Salihee could have been a suicide bomber or attempting to run them over as he approached an intersection in western Baghdad.

An investigator, Maj. Andre Vige, spent about a month examining the incident and found that the shooter was acting within the Army's rules of engagement, a conclusion that was affirmed by his superiors.

The neighborhood where the shooting took place, Amariyah, is known as an insurgent hotspot in Baghdad. The day before Salihee was shot, a U.S. patrol was shot at by a sniper in the area, and troops there operate with the constant threat of car bombs. Indeed, government officials in Baghdad have said insurgents now control parts of that area.

Salihee, a soft-spoken 30-year-old doctor and Knight Ridder correspondent, was on his way to get gasoline for his car to take his toddler daughter to the swimming pool. It was his day off.

There are no reliable numbers of Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. forces in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. The Committee to Protect Journalists said in a release last month that American troops had killed at least 13 journalists in Iraq, and in most cases the military has either not investigated or not made its reports public.

In Salihee's case, there were no disciplinary measures meted out. The only action taken was to send an unspecified number of soldiers to "remedial training on consequence management." Vige noted that the troops' decision to leave Salihee's body "in plain view and leaving the area ... could not have had a positive impact on the local populace."

The military made $2,500 in payment to Salihee's family for his death and an additional $2,500 for property damage to the car.

A joint patrol of American and Iraqi soldiers had stopped there on June 24 after hearing a gunshot. They hastily set up blocking positions and ran into a building looking for a man they'd spotted on the roof, thinking he could be a sniper.

The troops blocked three of the roads into the intersection with Humvees, but on the fourth road there was no Humvee. According to diagrams included in the 3rd Infantry Division report, troops blocking the fourth road stood to the side and not in the middle of the street to warn oncoming traffic.

Salihee was driving on that fourth road.

U.S. troops told Vige that they and the Iraqi troops waved and shouted warnings. It appears, from the U.S. diagram of the incident, that Salihee might not have seen the troops standing to the side of the street as he drove around a car that had stopped in front of him. As soon as he passed that car the shooting began.

A witness statement from an Iraqi man, included in the report, said of Salihee that, "the driver was asked to stop and he did but the American soldier fired at the car killing the driver."

An Iraqi eyewitness, interviewed by a Knight Ridder correspondent in Amariyah, supported the Army's version of events. Sabah Hassan Jasim, a 27-year-old man who works in a nearby plumbing-supply store, rushed outside his shop when he heard Iraqi troops yelling. He said the U.S. soldiers fired warning shots and that the car in front of Salihee stopped, but that Salihee apparently did not realize what was happening until it was too late.

"The ING (Iraqi soldiers) tried to shout at them. One of them (the Iraqi soldiers) got almost to the middle of the street, waving his hands to warn them, and the Americans shot at them," Jasim said.

"The other car stopped, but Yasser kept on. His windows were closed and his air-conditioning was on, and I think he was making a phone call because we found his phone in his lap after they shot him."

A second eyewitness interviewed in Amariyah, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that while he did not hear any warning shots from the Americans it was clear to him that Salihee was not paying attention to what was happening in front of him.

Statements by U.S. soldiers at the scene said that Salihee ignored repeated verbal warnings and then continued driving toward them even after warning shots had been fired.

The U.S. sniper who killed Salihee said that he and another soldier were positioned on a side road where they could watch the street. The two soldiers said in their statements that they fired three warning shots.

According to the military's report and the soldiers' statements, Salihee was driving at about 40 miles per hour—characterized by soldiers on the ground as "a high rate of speed"—when he came around the stopped car about 100 meters away from the intersection.

At that point, the first warning shot was fired in front of the car, according to the report. An inspection of Salihee's car after the shooting revealed a hole in the undercarriage of the vehicle, something that the military investigator pointed to as proof that a warning shot had been fired in front of Salihee's car before ricocheting underneath.

Then at about 70 meters from the intersection, the second warning shot, at the front right tire, and third warning shot, at the engine block, were fired, according to the report. An inspection of the car showed a bullet hole in the tire but there was no evidence of a shot to the engine block.

At about 40 meters out, the sniper shot Salihee in the head with a single bullet through the windshield, the report concluded. U.S. troops said that an Iraqi soldier then ran up to Salihee's car and shot point blank through the driver's side window, a charge that the soldier apparently denied.

The American sniper, whose name was blacked out, detailed the events in a document included in the report.

"I fired my third round into the front windshield. The vehicle slowly came to a stop," he wrote. "I could tell the driver had been hit in the head. Myself and (name blacked out) then continued our mission of over-watching the area."

Salihee left behind a wife, Raghad, also a physician, and 2-year-old daughter, Danya.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Zaineb Obeid and correspondent Nancy Youssef contributed to this report from Baghdad.)

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