Los Angeles Times - latimes.com
June 14, 2003

Iraqi Villagers Say 5 Farmers Died in Firefight
* The U.S. Army reports two militiamen and five locals were killed after soldiers were attacked. The community was largely pro-American.

By Michael Slackman, Times Staff Writer


The U.S. tank was rolling past fields of wheat, sunflowers and grape arbors in this impoverished farming village when the attackers struck. By the time the shooting from both sides was over, seven Iraqis were dead.

Lt. Col. Andy Fowler, the commander of the troops involved, said Friday that two of those killed in the Thursday night incident were wearing black uniforms, similar to those worn by the Fedayeen militia that supported Saddam Hussein's regime. He said the other five were local people.

Fowler said his men were fired at and fired back.

Residents of this village say that five of those killed were farmers stretched out in their fields under the stars, guarding their sheep and crops.

The incident came during a week of heavy combat activity in which thousands of U.S. troops stormed through areas north and northwest of Baghdad looking for loyalists from Hussein's Baath Party, terrorists and paramilitary forces who have been killing American soldiers across central Iraq in a number of small but compounding attacks.

The military says the operations are necessary to help stabilize the country and restore security. But its approach has angered many people in the predominantly Sunni Muslim communities, which enjoyed favored status under Hussein. Many residents charge that the Army has killed and detained innocent people and humiliated the general population.

Dijeel should have been different. It is primarily a community of Shiite Muslims, who were oppressed under Hussein, a Sunni. It also had been largely pro-American.

Then came the ambush and resulting raid. One family buried five of its relatives Friday--and a sixth was in the hospital.

Elderly women dressed in black robes sat on mats wailing, crying and beating their heads. The soldiers had returned the bodies that morning, and already the victims had been sent for burial in the Shiite religious city of Najaf. They said the soldiers apologized and left.

"We thought they would be better than Saddam Hussein," said Sabah Ahmed, 32, who lost three nephews in the incident. "They said they were coming here to give us liberty. Where is the liberty?"

Fowler's account of the incident, given to a reporter earlier in the day at the gate of his nearby base, did not contradict that given by the villagers but did not mention their allegation that his soldiers killed five farmers and injured a sixth in the heat of the chase. Fowler did not respond to several later requests to answer additional questions.

Earlier, he said: "My men have strict orders not to shoot at unarmed civilians day or night. If they had weapons and they were shooting, then my trooper will return fire." He said his soldiers found no weapons in the farmers' homes.

According to Fowler, about 11:30 p.m. Thursday, two tanks from the 4th Infantry Division were driving along a road that cuts through the farmland and links up with the main highway to Baghdad, about 45 miles to the south.

The M1A1 tanks were rumbling toward their base when attackers set off a large bomb beside the road using wires that ran off into the field.

Fowler said the tank then was hit by automatic-weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades. His soldiers immediately opened fire and called in backup troops, he said. The tanks were joined by three Bradley fighting vehicles. The assailants ran into the fields and fired back at the advancing troops.

He said his soldiers chased the attackers into a residential area. The soldiers took control of two houses. They searched for weapons but did not arrest anyone.

When it was all over, they found seven bodies, several rocket-propelled grenades and the battery used to detonate the bomb. The U.S. Central Command in Baghdad released a statement saying that 27 Iraqis involved in the attack were killed, and the Pentagon later reaffirmed the figure and the statement that all were involved in the attack.

Fowler said that figure was based on initial reports by his soldiers.

"I can only confirm seven dead," he said.

Razzaq Ali Jassam said that two men in black uniforms charged toward his house in the village after the explosion. He said he stepped outside to see what the commotion was about when he came across one of the men.

"I said: 'What is happening? Who are you?' " he recalled. "They said: 'The Americans are coming. Leave your houses.' "

Then Jassam heard shooting. The Americans had moved in across the fields, shooting rapidly and low.

This time of year, many families sleep outside. It is too hot to sleep inside their simple yellow-brick homes, and there is no electricity.

The soldiers likely did not know that Ali Jassim, 80, and his nephew, Kazim Zabar, 19, were sleeping beneath a straw overhang out in their fields to keep an eye on their flocks of sheep, villagers said. Jassim's sons Hamza, 39, Abid, 27, and Amr, 24, also were out in the fields.

The soldiers found out that the men were there, the villagers said, only when they recovered the bodies the next morning.

Jassim Mohammed, 28, lives not far from the spot where Hamza and Amr died. He was standing in the middle of the field Friday, his feet crunching down stubs left from the wheat harvest as he stared at his neighbors' blood staining the sun-baked earth.

Mohammed said he was sleeping in his home with his wife and six children when he heard the explosion. Very soon after, he said, his house was surrounded by eight vehicles. The soldiers searched it thoroughly, even examining his mattresses, he said. He said that as he stood there, he heard Hamza crying out.

"I heard a strong horrible cry," he recalled. "I lost my senses when I heard the shouting."

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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