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U.S. soldiers face challenges as they try to police Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In the struggle to convince Iraqis that U.S. troops are here to protect them, the military is losing the faith of one grieving Baghdad family.

Relatives of 58-year-old Khalid Rahomi say he was an innocent taxi driver shot to death around 11 a.m. May 9 by one or more U.S. soldiers. When the fatal shots rang out, Rahomi was transporting a passenger on a busy street near a palace compound that houses military and civilian officials who are leading Iraq's reconstruction efforts.

An American soldier has been detained as part of an investigation into the shooting, said Maj. Linda Scharf, a civil affairs officer attached to the 3rd Infantry Division. Scharf said the investigation hadn't yet determined whether a crime had been committed. She said she didn't know the soldier's name and whether he remained in custody.

Every U.S. soldier is required to carry a copy of the "rules of engagement." Essentially, the rules say soldiers must use reasonable force and show respect for Iraqis but that they can fire if they feel threatened.

Every day in Baghdad, millions of civilians move around with machine guns and grenade launchers pointed at them, ready to fire.

American soldiers must be on guard. They've been shot at countless times from buildings and passing vehicles, and even at close range. Twenty-three-year-old Pfc. Marlin Rockhold, of Hamilton, Ohio, died May 8 when a gunman walked up behind him at a crowded checkpoint and fired point-blank into the back of his head.

From the time Baghdad fell April 10 until a week ago Saturday, U.S. soldiers with the 3rd Infantry Division in the capital killed 21 Iraqis while defending themselves or civilians, said Lt. Col. Mike Birmingham, a division spokesman. In the same period, two of the unit's soldiers were killed.

Three weeks after Rahomi's death, his family says it has yet to receive any explanation about why he was shot—twice, in the head and shoulder. The relatives say they also deserve a formal apology.

Scharf said she sympathized with the family. "They just want answers. I owe them answers."

Isam Hindi al Dulaimy, 30, said he was outside his house when a Humvee hit Rahomi's slower-moving taxi from the rear, causing it to skid into a median. He heard two shots, about three seconds apart. The first shot seemed to come as the vehicles collided. As he ran toward Rahomi's taxi, he saw a frightened passenger, covered in blood, run from the car.

When he was about 75 yards away, he saw soldiers get down from the Humvee; one soldier pointed a rifle toward Rahomi's car. He said the Humvee then returned to the Republican Palace.

Khalid Taleb, 42, said that from about 30 yards away he watched a soldier step down from a Humvee and point a pistol toward Rahomi's car. He heard one shot.

An Arab television station filmed the aftermath, including Rahomi's blood-stained body slumped to the right and what appears to be one or perhaps two overlapping bullet holes in the car's roof near the back window.

The footage records U.S. soldiers trying to calm an angry crowd around the car.

People can be heard asking in Arabic: "Why? Why?" and "Just an old man driving his car."

An Army officer says to the crowd: "I need to know what soldier. I need to know who did this. I need to know why. Let us do an investigation and find out what happened here."

As soldiers stand among the crowd, someone yells in Arabic: "We will kill you at night, all of you."

At Rahomi's modest apartment, as part of an Iraqi custom, a black banner hangs from the balcony, announcing his death, like an obituary. The banner says: "He was betrayed."

His wife of 25 years, Buthaina al Matuk, will wear black for a year as part of her mourning. "I'm very said," she said. The couple shared the apartment with three of their seven children. Rahomi's 24-year-old son, Waleed, said he would drop out of college so he could work and replace the income his father made using the 23-year-old Toyota as a taxi. The family hopes to recover the car from the soldiers who took it away.

Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher with the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said he was concerned that combat soldiers were being called on to be police.

"Soldiers are constantly on edge," he said. "They're concerned about their safety. That volatility also has the potential to have consequences for innocent civilians mistaken for gunmen."

Commanders with combat units say their soldiers are trained to police Baghdad humanely. "We're not law enforcement. But we're charged with making the streets safe," said Command Sgt. Maj. Ricky Pring with 1st Battalion, 13th Armor, from Fort Riley, Kan. His unit provides guard posts and checkpoints in an area of north-central Baghdad in which an estimated 1.5 million people live.

"This is how I explain it to my soldiers: `You got a small percentage that really don't like us,' " Pring said.

Most Iraqis, he tells his soldiers, are "sitting on this fence, waiting to see what happens. They're waiting to see if we treat them with dignity and respect."

On the other side of Baghdad, Nassef Mohamed, 45, said it didn't happen that way for him. One recent night, nearly an hour before the 11 p.m. curfew, he heard loud noises outside and walked into an alley to check. Soldiers shined a light on him and yelled, he said.

"I didn't move suddenly because maybe they'd shoot me. Our police, they were bad, but they didn't shoot you.

"I respect the soldiers. They leave their country; they leave their wives. It's a hard life. I like to be a friend."

He said he wanted the troops to help keep order, but not the way they did outside his home:

"It's my country. It's my neighborhood. They didn't respect me."


(Potter reports for The Wichita Eagle.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-DANGER