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Raid illustrates perils of sending soldiers to do police work

MAHMUDIYA, Iraq—To the American paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division, it was a textbook operation.

To the Iraqi parents who lost their teenage daughter, it was a tragic and inexcusable overreaction.

Like many things about the U.S. occupation of Iraq, a lot depends on who's telling the story.

This much is clear: Two unarmed civilians were killed in the incident Sept. 1 in the dusty town of Mahmudiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad, including a 19-year-old woman who had hoped to attend medical school. They died when U.S. soldiers raked a small apartment with machine gun fire and tossed a grenade into the kitchen.

The soldiers did that—as they are trained to do, their commander said—after they banged on the door and were shot at from inside.

The shooter was a 16-year-old boy, who said he thought he was defending his home from thieves. Military investigators questioned him for several days and released him.

Beyond those basics, accounts of the incident conflict. But even the simple facts underscore the perils of sending battle-trained troops on police operations, as U.S. commanders must do in Iraq.

The version the Iraqis told amounts to a horror story that infuriates ordinary people here.

"She was crying for help, and I couldn't do anything for her," said a sobbing Malak Salman, 42, the mother of 19-year-old Farah Fadhil, who died after her body was shredded by shrapnel.

The soldiers said they used machine guns and a grenade on the apartment because someone inside wouldn't stop shooting at them. They also took fire from another location within the complex. And they shot an unarmed man as he was running from the building because they suspected he was attacking them.

Iraqis said Fadhil's terrified 16-year-old brother, Haroun al Janabe, fired a single round at the soldiers after they smashed the door with their rifle butts and he heard a shot. The man who was killed, Marwan Hassan, a visitor from Basra, wasn't in the apartment, the Iraqis said, and was running because he was trying to save his brother, who he feared was in the Americans' line of fire.

Several residents of the complex said they thought the Americans were used by someone who hated Fadhil's father, Fadel Hamza al Janabe, a lawyer who was a senior member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

"I can understand why they would shoot back if they were shot at," said Khadar Tuma, 50, a neighbor, as he stood in front of a wall that was pockmarked with dozens of American bullet holes. "But why did they use so much force? Why a grenade? It was an overreaction."

Not at all, said Lt. Col. John P. Johnson, the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 505th Parachute Regiment, out of Fort Bragg, NC.

"I'm very proud of the conduct of my paratroopers," he said.

The battalion had been in Iraq just two weeks when Bravo Company went on a routine night patrol Sept. 1, said the company's commander, Capt. J.C. White.

White, 28, of Kissimmee, Fla., met a reporter at his quarters in a former meat-processing plant, along with the company first sergeant, Wylie Hutchinson, 32, of Chino, Calif.; and the leader of the platoon that conducted the raid, Lt. John McNamara, 22, of Albany, N.Y.

The paratroopers said their unit was walking through the squalid concrete complex near where a U.S convoy had been attacked a few days before. They had no interpreter with them, but a tipster who spoke some English told them he could take them to where "a Baathist Party member was living," Hutchinson said.

As they talked, the soldiers made clear that they didn't realize that most people who live in the complex had belonged to the Baath Party because membership was mandatory for their jobs in a military equipment factory.

They said they approached the apartment, banged on the door and shouted, "U.S. Army."

Almost immediately, they said, shots were fired through the door.

"Once we're engaged, the rules change, and we have a lot of assets at our disposal," White said.

They surrounded the apartment and blasted away. Shooting from inside continued, they said, so they threw in a stun grenade, then an explosive grenade.

As they broke through the door and fired into the house, a propane tank in the kitchen exploded, probably ignited by machine-gun tracer fire, White said. Four soldiers were injured, none critically.

At some point during the shooting, Hassan ran out and they shot him dead, Hutchinson said. "He wasn't armed. He was in the apartment, where weapons were later found," the sergeant said.

They found an AK-47 rifle lying next to Fadhil, who was dead, White said. Hutchinson said they found another rifle, bandoliers of bullets and four empty magazines. He said they also found what he described as pro-Saddam, anti-American propaganda in the apartment.

Asked why the soldiers attacked instead of retreating when shots were fired from the apartment, White said it wouldn't have been appropriate to back down.

"We're just not going to do that," he said. "We're here to help the Iraqi people."

Hutchinson regrets the deaths, but said: "We'd do it the same way tonight if we had to."

Haroun and his mother said they heard banging on the door and heard voices in Arabic, not English. They said they heard what they thought was a shot fired into the door lock.

"We thought they were looters," Salman said. "I picked up the rifle and my son grabbed it from me."

Haroun said: "I fired one bullet and then I threw the gun down and ran to my room."

Salman said her daughter, who had been shot in the leg, crawled into the kitchen.

"They threw a grenade, which blew up the bottle of gas," she said. "The room was filled with fire."

She said she was blown out through a large window and landed in the garden, where bullets whizzed over her head for a half hour or more.

After the explosion, Haroun said, he ran out of the apartment and up the stairs, into another unit.

The soldiers took Fadel Hamza al Janabe and his son in for questioning, then released them.

Al Janabe said he could understand why the soldiers shot back after his son fired. But the U.S. military should admit that it went too far, he said. And he said the soldiers were lying if they said they found more than one rifle in his apartment.

He is disgusted, he said, that the Americans justify banging on his family's door in the middle of the night based on the whisperings of a single individual.

"Yes, I was a high official in the Baath Party," he said "But if this was such a problem, why have they released me?"

There was pro-Saddam literature at his apartment, as there is at many Iraqi homes, but it wasn't incendiary, he said.

"Did they find any documents urging people to fight the Americans?" he said. "They did not."

"I understand the army," he continued. "The gun is blind, and I expect these things to happen. But why can't they act with humanity and admit they were wrong?"


(Dilanian reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq-raid