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Civilian casualties leave Iraqis wary of American force

BAGHDAD, Iraq—American soldiers fired at their car for what seemed like 10 minutes, 13-year-old Hadeel Kawaz recalled Monday, her large brown eyes moistening as she spoke softly.

"My father was crying, `Stop! Stop! We're a family! We're a family!' " she said. "But they wouldn't."

When it was over Friday, her father was slumped in the front seat of their Volkswagen, fatally wounded. Her teen-age brother and two sisters—one of whom was 8 years old—also were dead or dying, their bodies pierced by bullets. Her mother, sitting in the passenger seat, survived.

A 19-year-old man was killed in the car ahead of them, which burst into flames.

A coalition military spokesman here said the incident, which he called "serious," was under investigation, although family members and witnesses said Monday that no U.S. officials had spoken with them.

Two men who said they were eyewitnesses said it was a case of nervous soldiers firing prematurely. At issue is whether Americans have used force excessively, killing innocent people and turning Iraqis against them. Baghdad residents question why American soldiers use overwhelming firepower in crowded city neighborhoods.

U.S. forces are being targeted by what officials say is an average of 12 guerrilla-style attacks per day, and 57 Americans have died in those attacks since major combat ended May 1, including one Sunday night. Grenades are thrown at them from overpasses and bombs explode under their humvees without warning on quiet streets. No one disputes that the soldiers are in danger and on edge.

The witnesses said the two cars were riddled with bullets Friday as they approached an American checkpoint shortly after an electrical transformer had exploded with the sound of a bomb.

"Many accidents like this happen," said Jamal Kadum, Hadeel's uncle, who lives about a half-mile from where the shooting happened. "The soldiers are afraid, and they shoot too fast."

"It's painful. They were innocent people and they did nothing," said Maj. Ramsey Mahmoud Zaml, who runs the Iraqi police district that includes the neighborhood.

Although the American death toll is counted meticulously, no one is sure how many Iraqi civilian bystanders have been killed since major combat operations ended. There have been a number of well-publicized deaths similar to these. Some have involved Iraqis who didn't stop at newly erected checkpoints that witnesses said were difficult to see.

"Each of these incidents is a tragedy, and it would appear that the biggest challenge is at traffic control points," Lt. Col Guy Shields, the coalition military spokesman, said Monday. "People just need to be very careful."

According to Ahmed Samad, 20, and Maath Mohammed, 27, two auto mechanics who said they witnessed Friday's shooting, U.S. soldiers were raiding a house and had set up a makeshift checkpoint on residential Bilal Habashi Street in the north Baghdad suburb of Slaykh, just as dusk descended.

An electrical transformer on an overhead power line exploded shortly before the two cars started down the street, unknowingly moving toward the American humvees, the two men said. It was about 9:15 p.m., they said, a time when Iraqis flood the streets to get home before the 11 p.m. curfew.

The two men said the driver of the lead car, an Opel, appeared not to hear Americans telling him to stop. Then the gunfire began.

The Opel driver, 19-year-old Sayf Ali, was killed. Two passengers leaped out as the car burst into flames, the witnesses recounted.

The two witnesses said they saw at least one U.S. soldier wounded by what they believed was fire from other American soldiers.

After the gunfire subsided, "My father was trying to lift himself up. He was saying, `Help me! Help me! I'm still alive,' "Hadeel said. "I yelled to the Americans. I told them my father and my sister are still alive," she said. "But they said wait.

"They didn't come immediately. It seemed like another 10 minutes," she continued. "An American soldier pulled me out of the car by my hand."

Hadeel said a female soldier bandaged her head. Family members said the Americans took with them the bodies of Hadeel's father, Adel Kawaz, and her youngest sister, 8-year-old Mirvet. They said the soldiers left the bodies of Haydar Kawaz, 18, and Olaa Kawaz, 17, after removing them from the car and placing them on the street under a blanket.

Hadeel's mother, who is pregnant, was unavailable for comment, relatives said.

In front of Hadeel's grandparents' house Monday—where the family was visiting before they were attacked—sat the old white Volkswagen. The back seats were soaked with blood. The front and rear windshields were pocked with bullet holes. On a nearby wall was a death notice saying the family members had been "killed by the aggression of the American coalition."

"Our children, they are being killed every day," said Nada Khalid, a cousin of Ali, whose charred body was pulled from the Opel.

Hadeel answered questions with remarkable composure until she was asked if she was angry with the Americans. She didn't respond for a full minute, and then she began sobbing. She couldn't continue.

"We will not take revenge," said Kadum, her uncle. "God will do it for us. Every one of the soldiers will have to answer to God."

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

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