AMMAN, Jordan—The gunmen came for the brothers just before dinnertime on a sticky May night in eastern Baghdad. As usual, the electricity didn't work, so the family had gathered in the courtyard to keep cool.
Imad Marjan had just headed to the bathroom—"as if God wanted to spare a life," he recalled recently—leaving his brother, Essam, their two sisters and several young nieces and nephews sitting down to platters of lamb.
Then Imad heard a ruckus downstairs and his sisters' frantic shouts of "Leave him alone!" Imad instinctively ran to the rooftop, where he'd stashed a gun. A generator whirred nearby, and there was just enough light for Imad to make out several carloads of black-clad gunmen swarming the family home. In loud voices, they asked for Imad and Essam by name.
Realizing he was outgunned, Imad jumped to the roof of his uncle's home next door and watched the assailants, some armed with rocket-propelled grenades, bundle his brother into a black Daewoo sedan and speed off.
"I just wanted to fight, but I saw those RPGs and I knew I had to think about the rest of the family," Imad said. "I panicked so bad that my stomach tightened up and my lips went dry. I knew that if my brother left that house he wasn't coming back."
Thousands of Iraqis could tell similar stories, though finding people to talk so openly is rare. Those who've survived are understandably reluctant to draw attention to themselves.
Still, the Marjan brothers' tale is especially compelling because it neatly knits together Iraq's past and its future. In one violent raid that lasted only five minutes, the era of Saddam Hussein came full circle to the Shiite Muslim death squads of today and hinted at how Iraq is likely to remain for years.
Now in Amman, Imad, one of thousands of Iraqis who've fled their violent homeland to relative safety here, recounted his story to a reporter and showed the documents, ID cards and other evidence that back up his account.
He vows revenge—"even if it means my brother's little son growing up and carrying it out for us."
The Marjan brothers, Sunni Muslims, grew up in Baladiyat, a middle-class Baghdad district that bumps up against the teeming Shiite enclave of Sadr City. Then, Baladiyat was home to Sunnis and Shiites. As was typical for families of their standing, both brothers joined the Baath Party because education and job opportunities were reserved for those who professed loyalty to Saddam.
Each enrolled in a military academy at age 18. They were recruited into the amn al khas, Arabic for "special security," an elite force overseen by Saddam's son Qusai. They both got teaching jobs at the special-forces school in their neighborhood. Essam specialized in airborne operations; Imad in hand-to-hand combat.
Photos from that period show them in matching drab olive uniforms and handlebar mustaches. Each brother sported three stars on his shoulder, denoting the rank of captain.
As U.S.-led forces advanced toward Baghdad in spring 2003, the Marjan brothers were assigned to units that fanned out to defend the city. Imad freely admits that they didn't put up much of a fight. "We knew Saddam was on the way out," he said.
Like thousands of other foot soldiers of the old regime, the Marjans lost their jobs when the victorious Americans dissolved the Iraqi army. For three months they were unemployed until they heard that new security firms were hiring Iraqis with security experience to guard the country's fledgling government. They signed up for risky jobs that paid $200 a month.
"Of course it was painful. We reject the idea of occupation," Imad said. "But when they told us, `We're going to rebuild this and we need your help,' we had a decision to make. And we decided to try to help bring Iraq back to life."
When interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi in May 2004 took the reins from the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which ruled Iraq after the invasion, the Marjans left the private firm to work for the new government. Imad said they were heartened by Allawi's promises to reinstate those former Baathists who weren't considered security threats. Indeed, both brothers saw their captain stars restored.
"They were recruiting us; they welcomed us," Imad recalled. "I never thought my background would be a problem. To the contrary, they kept telling us they were desperate for expertise."
The Marjan brothers were assigned to Iraq's new council of ministers, where they rubbed elbows with the new crop of Shiite leaders, including the one-time Pentagon favorite, exile leader Ahmad Chalabi. The brothers easily rose through the ranks of the new government's security hierarchy. Their most prestigious assignment was at the Special Tribunal, guarding the prosecutors who were building cases against Saddam and his cronies for atrocities committed against Shiite and Kurdish communities.
In those days, it was fellow Sunnis they feared. The brothers hid their plastic badges that gave them access to the American compound known as the Green Zone. They told no one outside their family about their work, lest Sunni insurgents target them as coalition "collaborators."
Then came Iraq's historic elections in early 2005, which were a triumph of the Shiites. Ibrahim al Jaafari, leader of the Iranian-backed Dawa Party, was installed as prime minister that April. On July 17, 2005, Imad said, his superiors were called into a meeting with officials from the new Shiite-led government.
"When they came out, they looked like they were going to cry," Imad said. "They told us, `It's out of our hands. There's nothing we can do.' Then, one by one, they gave us the letters."
The letters discharged the Marjan brothers. As former members of the Baath Party, they were judged unfit to serve in the new Iraq. They were unemployed again.
Imad said he was overcome by a fit of rage and stormed off to confront Chalabi, a secular Shiite. Chalabi, then deputy prime minister, occupied an office in the building where the Marjan brothers worked.
"He knew me by name, and I told him, `You won't have this position for long. You are here to snatch Iraq and steal its wealth. But I know you and there's lots of time,'" Imad recalled.
"At first, he didn't say anything," Imad continued. "Then he looked at me for a while and said, `May the strongest last longest.'"
The newly elected government, Imad said, had access to personal information on him and his brother, as well as dozens of other former Baathists who'd worked with the transitional leadership. He's convinced that it was through those files that the gunmen tracked him down.
Imad is just as convinced that the attackers were Shiites—those who stormed his house on May 17 spoke in the singular dialect of Iraq's Shiite Muslim south. Their black tracksuits, language and method of attack pointed to membership in a militia; the Marjans are convinced it was a Mahdi Army death squad linked to militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
"They started looking for us from one place to another until they found us," Imad said.
At dawn the morning after he witnessed his brother's abduction, Imad hid in the trunk of a car and sought refuge on the Sunni side of Baghdad with an aunt who lived across the Tigris from Baladiyat. One of his sisters told him that the attackers had taken her cell phone, so the family held out hope for a call demanding a ransom for Essam's release.
When hours passed with no word, the family sent one of Imad's sisters to the local police station, which hadn't responded to the attack on the home a few blocks away. His sister reported the incident to a policeman, who responded, "Oh, yes, you mean Officer Essam," indicating he'd known about the missing brother's background. The police promised to call soon with information.
Anxious, the sister returned later that day to check in with the police. She made a phone call to Imad from the station.
"Your brother was killed!" she screamed before dropping the phone in hysterics.
Imad said a policeman picked up the receiver and offered his condolences. Essam had been shot to death. His corpse was dumped outside a Sunni mosque a couple of miles from the family home. He was found blindfolded, with his hands tied behind his back by a strip of cloth.
In a hushed voice, the officer told Imad that it wasn't safe for him to pick up the papers necessary to release the body. A nephew picked up the documents instead.
Imad went to the Baghdad morgue to claim his brother. The morgue director tried to prevent him from seeing the body. "You won't be able to handle it," the man told Imad.
Imad insisted. Two doctors drew back the sheet. Imad saw the full horror of what had happened.
Essam's head had been shattered by a gunshot. He was missing an eye, and there were drill marks on one of his cheeks and on his chest. A broken rib pushed unnaturally against his skin, and there was a burn mark on his left leg. A patchwork of purple bruises covered his arms.
"With his body lying there like that, I felt like Essam was complaining to me, telling me all he'd gone through. His hands were so, so cold," Imad said. "I closed my eyes and told him, `You go rest now. Leave the pain for me.'"
Imad and his nephew used the cameras on their cell phones to photograph the body, taking pains to capture every angle that showed the marks of torture. Imad provided the photos to a reporter, but asked that they not be published for fear of upsetting his sisters. The family hasn't seen the photos.
Imad, however, keeps the grisly images on his cell phone in Jordan and calls them up from time to time to remind himself of why he must return to Iraq one day.
"The reason I keep them is so that I never forget, so that I can take revenge the second I can," Imad said. "In the future, if I have even a tiny bit of power or authority, I'll find them. I'll wait as long as it takes."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.