In Maliki's hometown, grief and questions after deadly U.S. raid

JANAJA, Iraq — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki grew up in this village of lemon and date orchards about half an hour from the southern Shiite Muslim holy city of Karbala. He attended school in the area, according to his official biography, and members of his extended family keep elegant villas here.

Maliki is Janaja's most famous son, but he's been conspicuously silent in the aftermath of an apparent covert coalition raid Friday morning -- finally acknowledged Sunday by the U.S. military -- that killed one of his relatives and terrified the villagers, many of whom share the premier's tribal last name and belong to his Dawa Party. Other senior Iraqi officials have not kept mum: They've demanded an investigation and say the incident could affect negotiations for a long-term U.S.-Iraqi security pact.

Janaja residents said the prime minister's office privately has reassured them that Maliki is furious with his American allies but that he wanted to keep the ensuing diplomatic crisis out of the media spotlight. On Sunday, tribal leaders from throughout the south gathered under funeral tents to offer condolences and whisper about what went wrong.

The U.S. military broke its silence on the incident Sunday, releasing a vague statement confirming that coalition forces had shot and killed "a local security guard" during operations early Friday that targeted special groups, a reference to suspected Iranian-backed militant cells.

The statement, which did not mention the military branch or even the nationality of the force that conducted the raid, said the guard "exited a building in close proximity to coalition forces while brandishing an AK-47 held against his shoulder as if to fire. Perceiving hostile intent and acting in self defense, coalition forces shot and killed the armed man." Only later did the forces realize he was a local security guard.

"Coalition forces deeply regret the loss of life and are conducting an investigation," the statement read. There was no other information about the target of the raid or whether the troops had made any arrests.

A high-ranking member of the Iraqi government told McClatchy on Saturday that the raid was conducted by a U.S. Special Forces "antiterrorism unit that operates almost independently." Other U.S. and Iraqi officials speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed the involvement of Special Forces. The U.S. military command in Baghdad declined to offer further comment.

The U.S. military's muted apology, three days after the raid, still leaves plenty of questions for the residents of Janaja. Two aspects of the covert operation infuriated Iraqi officials, from the Karbala council building all the way to the Baghdad government headquarters.

One is that the raid occurred within Karbala province, one of nine provinces ostensibly under full Iraqi control. The U.S. military handed over Karbala security in October 2007; Iraqi authorities say the raid was conducted without their knowledge or coordination.

The second is that the man described by the military as "a local security guard" was actually a cousin of Maliki's and served as the personal bodyguard of Maliki's sister, relatives and Iraqi officials said. Ali Abdulhussein al Maliki was killed at his guard post outside the villa belonging to Maliki's sister, said the guard's brother, Ahmed Abdulhussein al Maliki.

The brother — referred to here without his tribal name to avoid confusion with the prime minister — was reluctant to speak about the incident, but allowed a few minutes for a visiting journalist in part because tribal custom deems it shameful to turn away a guest. Dressed in a dark-brown suit, he was presiding over the mourning ceremony and had long lines of sheikhs in flowing robes and traditional headdresses waiting for him.

Abdulhussein, who was not present during the raid, said his brother and three other bodyguards were at the home of Maliki's sister, their cousin, in a guard station attached to the main, two-story villa. Before dawn Friday, Abdulhussein said, the guards heard U.S. helicopters in the area. Abdulhussein said about 50 American ground troops in camouflage then stormed into Janaja. He said he still has no idea why they came to the Maliki home.

"(The troops) raided this room, the guard room, and detained the guards, including Ali, who'd memorized a few English words and tried to tell them, 'I'm police. I'm a Maliki guard,'" Abdulhussein said. "They tied the hands of the three guards and took Ali to the room. Ten minutes later, they heard gunfire. The American forces killed Ali."

Abdulhussein said the foreign troops left the surviving guards handcuffed in the other room and departed without damaging any property or making any arrests at the home. After recounting the story, Abdulhussein excused himself and returned to his duties at one of three funeral tents that had been erected to accommodate the huge number of high-profile mourners and their security details.

As Janaja grieves, Baghdad is still working through the diplomatic fallout from the incident, Iraqi officials said.

In a cruel irony, officials said, the crisis could strengthen the hand of Iraqi negotiators who are involved in the drafting of a Status of Forces Agreement, a long-term U.S.-Iraqi security pact to govern the conduct of American forces in Iraq. Two of the main sticking points are whether the U.S. military can conduct independent operations and whether to grant immunity for American troops or security contractors who are accused of criminal activity.

"If this changes anything, it will make the Status of Forces Agreement even more important," said Ahmed Shames, a media officer from Maliki's office. "It will definitely influence the negotiations and give the Iraqi negotiators even more to ask for."

Shames confirmed without elaborating that the guard who was killed was connected to the Maliki family's security detail, adding that the prime minister certainly "was not pleased" with what happened in Janaja.

"You can tell he is upset by this," Shames said. "He hasn't been in a good mood since the incident."

(Special correspondent Zein reported from Janaja; Allam reported from Baghdad.)