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12-year-old boy killed by U.S. soldier; military, Iraqi accounts differ

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Mohammed and Mustafa Al-Kubaysi were inseparable since the day they were born: January 17, 1991, the day the first Gulf War began.

They shared one bedroom at home, one desk at school, one bicycle for afternoon rides. Friends in their 5th grade class always got them confused; only their parents could tell them apart. The older by minutes, Mohammed was obedient, Mustafa mischievous. They are one soul, said their father, Subhi Hassan Jweer Al-Kubaysi; if one is sick the other is sick.

Now one is dead.

Mohammed, 12, was shot and killed by an American soldier late Thursday night as he stood on the roof of the family's home in western Baghdad, making him one of the youngest civilians killed in Iraq since combat operations ended May 1. For Americans struggling to understand why violence continues to erupt against U.S. soldiers in Iraq, the story of Mohammed's death may be instructive.

U.S. officials said Mohammed had an AK-47 in his hand and posed a threat to soldiers who were conducting a weapons search nearby. Mohammed's family says he was on the roof to escape the heat and to get a better look at the soldiers. He had no weapon, they said.

All the children, when the Army comes at night, they go to the roof to watch them, Al- Kubaysi said. He was just a boy.

The U.S. military says that it is investigating.

"It was dark and the soldier saw a silhouette on a rooftop. He had to make a decision and he engaged. It's a tough call to make. I'm sure the soldier regrets it," said Major Scott Slaten, a spokesman for the Army's 1st Armored Division.

"But what is a 12-year-old boy doing on a rooftop with an AK-47? We've seen some cases where adults are using the child to carry their weapons. In the dark, when there is no electricity, a 12-year-old and a 20-year-old often look the same," Slaten said. "We all hate that this has happened. But we're not admitting guilt in any way, shape or form. He had a weapon."

Thursday was another dark, hot night in Baghdad. Much of the city has been without electricity, and the neighborhood's power had gone off about an hour earlier.

When the U. S. soldiers rumbled into the neighborhood around 10:30 p.m., Mohammed ran to the roof, his mother said. He was standing on the outdoor stairs between the second floor of the family's home and the roof when a US soldier saw him.

Witnesses said the soldier, who was standing on the street behind the house, swung his gun upwards.

"We saw him aim and we said, `Baby! Baby! Don't shoot!" said Hashim Abdullah, a neighbor who witnessed the shooting. Abdullah is one of two witnesses who gave written testimony of what he saw to Mohammed's family.

Up above, on the stairs, Mohammed started to walk down, Abdullah said, but was shot in the chest after taking only two steps. He fell face first into the stairwell, filling it with blood. At least five other shots were fired, the witnesses said. Two bullets pierced an upstairs window. Another bullet remains lodged in the hallway leading to the children's bedrooms.

On the ground, the soldier took off his helmet and sat on the ground, witnesses said. He pointed his gun at anyone who tried to approach or speak to him, they said.

Slaten defended the soldier, saying he may not have understood what the neighbors were trying to tell him. A hand pointing out a child could have also been pointing out a sniper.

"There were neighbors pointing to the roof, but there wasn't a translator," Slaten said.

Back in the house, family members carried the boy's body downstairs and lay him in his mother's arms. Mustafa hovered over them, saying, "Please, brother, talk to me."

"He thought he wasn't dead," said Wafa Abed Al Lateif, Mohammed's mother. "I knew he was dead. One bullet ripped his heart out of his chest. I took his heart in my hand and I pushed it back inside."

By then, Al Lateif said, a group of soldiers had come from around the block and entered her home. One of them walked up to her and leaned over Mohammed.

"My child was in my lap and bleeding and the soldier came up to feel his neck," she said. "He felt nothing and he started crying."

Mohammed was buried Friday afternoon in a cemetery west of Baghdad.

On Saturday, his friends and relatives continued to mourn. Neighbors spoke in angry voices about the American soldiers and the death of the child they described as sweet and soft. No one looked at the rusted, red frame bicycle with the banana seat leaning against the wall in the family's courtyard, the bicycle the twins loved to ride together.

Only one woman dared dissent, saying she thought the shooting was an accident.

"The Americans don't hurt children. They love children," neighbor Mona Harbe said. "They give children candy and the children kiss them. They didn't know they were shooting at a child."

But others—including Harbe's two sons—shouted her down.

"You talk for the Americans now?" one asked. "Why are you defending them?" another said.

"I only tell the truth," Harbe said.

At the same time, across town, family members gathered met at a relative's home. Huddled inside with the other women, the voice of Mohammed's sister, Assel, rose above the others. Her face swollen from crying, she folded her arms across her body and rocked back and forth, sobbing and screaming, "He's dead! He's dead!"

Outside, where the men had come together, Mustafa sat listlessly on his father's lap, his eyes downcast. He has told his mother he wants to be called Mohammed now.

"We were collecting money to buy a bicycle," he said, as his eyes filled with tears.

The adults around him spoke in harsh tones and vowed revenge. He was born under Bush's war, and he died under Bush's war, Al-Kubaysi said.

"Americans value their children. Please value ours," said Al-Kubaysi. "We will revenge. One child is equal to 10 American soldiers. No one came to apologize. They at least should come to say they are sorry."


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

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