Iraqi family who lost 11 members to U.S. fire thought they were fleeing to safety

NEAR NAJAF, Iraq—An Iraqi family who lost 11 members when U.S. soldiers opened fire as their sport utility vehicle approached a checkpoint near here Monday were fleeing toward U.S. lines because they thought a leaflet dropped by American helicopters told them to "be safe" and that that meant getting out of their village to Karbala, a survivor of the incident said Tuesday.

Bakhat Hassan—who lost his daughters, ages 2 and 5, his son, 3, his parents, two older brothers, their wives and two nieces, ages12 and 15, in the incident—said American soldiers at an earlier checkpoint had waved them through as they drove away from their home village. As they approached another checkpoint 25 miles south of Karbala, they waved again at the American soldiers.

"We were thinking these Americans want us to be safe," Hassan said through an Army translator at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital set up at a vast Army support camp near Najaf.

The soldiers didn't wave back. They fired.

"I saw the heads of my two little girls come off," Hassan's wife, Lamea, 36, recalled numbly. She repeated herself in a flat, even voice: "My girls—I watched their heads come off their bodies. My son is dead."

U.S. officials originally gave the death toll as seven in the incident, and reporters at the scene placed it at 10. But Hassan's father died at the Army hospital later.

American officials said the soldiers at an Army checkpoint who opened fire were following orders not to let vehicles approach checkpoints. Saturday, a suicide bomber had killed four U.S. soldiers outside Najaf.

The details that emerge in interviews with the survivors of Monday's incident tell a distressing tale, of a family fleeing toward what they thought would be safety, tragically misunderstanding instructions.

Hassan's father, in his 60s, wore his best clothes for the trip through the American lines: a pinstriped suit.

"To look American," Hassan said.

"A miscommunication with civilians," said an Army report written Monday night.

Hassan, his wife and another of his brothers are in intensive care at the MASH unit. Another brother, sister-in-law and a 7-year-old child were released to bury the dead.

The Shiite family of 17 was packed in its 1974 Land Rover, so crowded that Bakhat, 35, was outside on the rear bumper hanging on to the back door.

Everyone else was piled on one another's laps in three sets of seats. They were fleeing their farm town southeast of Karbala, where U.S. attack helicopters had fired missiles and rockets the day before.

Helicopters also had dropped leaflets on the town: a drawing of a family sitting at a table eating and smiling with a message written in Arabic.

Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Furbush, an Army intelligence analyst, said the message read: "To be safe, stay put."

But Hassan said he and his father thought it just said, "Be safe." To them, that meant getting away from the helicopters firing rockets and missiles.

His father drove. They planned to go to Karbala. They stopped at an Army checkpoint on the northbound road near Sahara, about 25 miles south of Karbala, and were told to go on, Hassan said.

But "the Iraqi family misunderstood" what the soldiers were saying, Furbush said.

A few miles later, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle came into view. The family waved as it came closer. The soldiers opened fire.

Hassan remembers an Army medic at the scene of the killings speaking Arabic.

"He told us it was a mistake and the soldiers were sorry," Hassan said.

"They believed it was a van of suicide bombers," Furbush said.

Hassan, his wife, his father and a brother were airlifted to the MASH unit.

Three doctors and three nurses worked on the father for four hours. His right hand and right leg were amputated by a plastic surgeon. A cardio-thoracic surgeon cracked his chest, and an internist repaired a hole in his colon. But his heart stopped and they couldn't restart it. He died at 11 p.m.

"We didn't know who he was, and we didn't care. We just wanted to save him," said John Cho, the cardio-thoracic surgeon from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington who worked on the father.

Tuesday, Hassan and his wife were in cots next to each other in the green Army hospital tent in the desert. He had staples in his head. She had a mangled hand and shrapnel in her face and shoulder.

Maj. Scott McDannold, an anesthesiologist from Canton, Ohio, said Hassan's brother, five cots down, wouldn't make it. McDannold stayed up all night Monday with the brother, who is on a respirator with a broken neck.

Hassan and his wife, who are poor dirt farmers, rarely speak or sleep. They lie in their drab green cots with open, dead eyes.

Two dozen civilians, wounded in other U.S. military accidents, are also in the field hospital. One of them, Amel Hadi, 30, from Makrea, 70 miles east of Najaf, begged to go to her 2-month-old daughter.

"I am nursing. I tried for eight years to have my baby," she said in Arabic.

Internist David Vetter explained: "She was with two other women in a car, with her baby. They had a white flag out the window, but there was confusion and our troops fired on them."

On March 16, Hassan and his family began to harvest tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions and eggplant. It was a healthy crop, and they expected a good year.

"We had hope," he said. "But then you Americans came to bring us democracy and our hope ended."

Lamea is nine months pregnant.

"It would be better not to have the baby," she said. "Our lives are over."


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