AL HAMDANIA, Iraq—Before people talked about how Hashim Ibrahim Awad was killed, his friends shared tales about how the Americans wanted him to be an informant.
U.S. Marines had approached him several times, Awad's friends say he told them, asking him to help them find who was planting explosives in this small village outside Baghdad. Every time, Awad, in his 50s with a lame leg and bad eyesight, refused. His family considered the job shameful.
In an exclusive interview with Knight Ridder on Friday, Awad's family gave their version of what happened to him in the early morning hours of April 26. They said U.S. Marines dragged Awad from his home, killed him and then planted an AK-47 assault rifle and a shovel next to him to make him look like a terrorist.
The family members said American investigators have since harassed them, questioning their allegations in hours-long sessions that begin in the dead of night and last past dawn. They said they once were taken for questioning to nearby Abu Ghraib prison, the scene of previous allegations of American abuse.
There was no way to confirm the accounts. U.S. officials have declined to provide details of the allegations that led them on May 25 to announce that they were investigating the death of an Iraqi civilian and that "several service members from 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment . . . were removed from operations and have returned to the United States."
But the probe of the case has turned up enough evidence against Marines that eight individuals have been jailed and four others have been told not to leave their base at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Lt. Lawton King, a Camp Pendleton spokesman, said Friday that 1st Marine Division commander Gen. Richard F. Natonski ordered the eight into "pre-trial confinement" after an "evaluation of the ongoing investigation."
King declined to identify the eight by their branch of service and said that all but one had appeared before a magistrate. He said no charges have been presented, however.
Al Hamdania is on the far western edge of Baghdad province. Insurgents are active in the area, and kidnappings and other violence are common. The town is obscure enough that U.S. officials incorrectly rendered its name as "Hamandiyah" in their official announcement.
The case is one of three involving the deaths of 36 Iraqis, including women and children, that have drawn fresh attention to complaints that U.S. forces in Iraq have wantonly killed unarmed civilians.
U.S. officials also are investigating a Nov. 19 case in the western Iraqi town of Haditha in which at least 24 civilians were killed. U.S. Marines initially said that 15 of them and a Marine died when a roadside bomb exploded and that eight others were killed when Marines returned insurgent fire. But a preliminary investigation found that none of the civilians had died from the explosion, and survivors told Knight Ridder and others that the Marines had stormed into houses and killed the occupants.
Iraqi police also have accused U.S. troops of executing 11 people on March 15 in the town of Ishaqi, north of Balad, including a 75-year-old woman and a 6-month-old. U.S. officials announced Friday that an investigation had found no wrongdoing and that no action would be taken against the soldiers.
On Thursday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said that American violence against Iraqi civilians had become almost habitual. "We cannot forgive the violations of the dignity of the Iraqi people," al Maliki said.
Awad's family showed Knight Ridder a sheet of paper that appeared to be part of a report on the incident. A Marine sergeant had written that his unit killed the man because he was "digging on the side of the road from our ambush site. I made the call and engaged. He was pronounced dead at the scene with only a shovel and AK-47."
The sergeant signed his name. It was witnessed by a second Marine.
Awad's family members offer a radically different version. Awad's cousin, Farhan Ahmed Hussein, said Americans came to his door in the early morning hours of April 26 and pounded on it so forcefully that he knew that if he didn't open it, they would.
In broken Arabic, a soldier said, "Tefteesh," or search. The Marines asked him if he had any weapons. An AK-47, he told them, and they took it and a shovel resting in front of his house. They thanked him in Arabic for cooperating and left, Hussein said.
He said he didn't think much of it. "I told myself first thing in the morning, I will stop the first patrol I see and ask them for my AK-47 and shovel back," he said.
Next, the Marines knocked on the door of Awad's brother, Awad Ibrahim Awad. The two brothers lived not far from their cousin, in small houses on a barren field.
Awad Ibrahim Awad said the Marines knocked at around 2 a.m., but that he decided not to get out of bed. They left.
Surprised, he said he looked outside—the area is illuminated with generator-powered lights—and saw the Marines walking behind his brother's house toward the home of a neighbor.
"The soldiers asked my mom if there were any men in our house. When she told them no, they left without searching the house," the neighbor, who asked to be identified only as Mohammed, said.
Awad Ibrahim Awad said the Marines then knocked at Hashim Awad's door. When he came to the door, two Marines grabbed each of his hands and pulled him out of the house. The Marines took Hashim Awad and left without searching inside, Awad Ibrahim Awad said.
"They looked like people who found what they were looking for," Awad Ibrahim Awad said. "I told my wife, `They took my brother, but I think he will be fine.' And I told myself: `What's the worse they do? Investigate him for a few days and then release him because he is innocent.' Thirty minutes later, I heard gunshots."
The next day, as Awad Ibrahim Awad was working at a nearby gas station, Iraqi police pulled in and asked him to identify the body of someone from his neighborhood who'd been killed by the Americans. He stared at the body, which had an AK-47 and shovel next to it, but didn't recognize his brother.
"I saw a swollen face, and signs that he had been beaten. And it was clear a bullet had been shot into the mouth and broke part of his bottom teeth," he said. "I told the police officers, `I know this man,' but I cannot recognize him. He was beaten to the point that I couldn't recognize his face."
Awad Ibrahim said it never occurred to him that the body might be his brother's. "He didn't have an AK-47 or shovel when the Americans took him," he said. "And besides, the Americans took him. How can he be dead and in police hands now?"
But something nagged at him, so he went to the hospital and looked at the body again. This time he recognized his brother by his leg, which had been damaged in a farming accident 15 years ago.
Local tribal leaders said the Americans brought Hashim Awad's body, the shovel and the AK-47 to the local police station and reported that they'd caught the man digging a hole and planting an explosive device, so they killed him. The police took the body to the hospital.
Shortly after the funeral, residents showed the family a flyer that Marines were circulating. The flyer said that Hashim Awad had been killed because he was a terrorist planting explosives and "lethal force will stop that." They misspelled his name.
Tribal leaders told Marine officers about the Hashim Awad's death during a regularly scheduled community outreach meeting May 1. U.S. officials opened an investigation shortly after that.
Since then, American forces have questioned the family repeatedly, relatives said, sometimes in the middle of the night. They said the Americans once took several of them to Abu Ghraib prison and held them for hours, questioning only one of them. They rode home in a military convoy.
"We believe the Americans are trying to terrorize us so we won't talk," said Hussein, Hashim Awad's cousin.
The American investigators have taken DNA swabs from his mouth, Awad Ibrahim Awad said. Another brother, Sadoun Ibrahim Awad, gave the Americans permission to exhume his brother's body.
(A Knight Ridder special correspondent who could not be named for security reasons reported this story from Hamdania. Also, Knight Ridder special correspondent Zaineb Obeid contributed to this report.)