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US Concedes Iraq Victims Were Law-Abiding, Not Insurgents

by Leila Fadel

BAGHDAD - The U.S. military said Sunday that the three people killed last month after U.S. soldiers shot at their car in one of the most secured areas of Iraq were civilians, not criminals as the military initially reported.

The correction came more than a month after a bank manager at a branch inside the airport, Hafeth Aboud Mahdi, and two female bank employees were shot at by U.S. soldiers as they sped to work on a road within the secured airport compound. The road is used only by people with high-level security clearance badges. The car veered off the road, hit a concrete blast wall and burst into flames.

The original statement said that Mahdi and the two women were "criminals" and that an American convoy on the side of the secured road came under small-arms fire from the vehicle. Soldiers said they shot back. A weapon was found in the debris and two U.S. military vehicles were struck by bullets from the attack, the statement on June 25 said.

"When we are attacked, we will defend ourselves and will use deadly force if necessary," Maj. Joey Sullinger, a spokesman for 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, said in a statement at the time. "Such attacks endanger not only U.S. soldiers but also innocent civilians, including women and children, traveling the roadways of Baghdad."

On Sunday the story changed and the tone was apologetic. A military statement said that neither the civilians who were killed nor the soldiers were at fault for the deaths. An investigation found that "the driver and passengers were law-abiding citizens of Iraq."

Soldiers had pulled off the road because one of the vehicles in the convoy was having maintenance problems. As they worked on the vehicle they saw Mahdi's car and thought it was moving too quickly toward them, the statement said. Believing they might be in danger, the soldiers warned the car. When the driver ignored the signals they shot at the vehicle, the statement said.

The alleged attack and the weapon that was said to have been recovered from the burned vehicle were misunderstandings, the statement said.

"This was an extremely unfortunate and tragic incident," said Col. Allen Batschelet, chief of staff, MND-B and 4th Infantry Division, in a statement. "Our deepest regrets of sympathy and condolences go out to the family. We are taking several corrective measures to amend and eliminate the possibility of such situations happening in the future."

Mahdi's son, Mohammed Hafeth, said the statement was insufficient.

He said the image of his father's burning vehicle haunts him. He'd waited in his father's office that morning surprised that he wasn't there yet. They'd left at nearly the same time that morning.

Hafeth drives bank employees to work. That morning his father offered to take one of Hafeth's passengers and picked up another female bank employee who lived nearby their central Baghdad home.

As he sat in the office a colleague walked in and told Hafeth his father's car was broken down on the airport road. Hafeth reached for his car keys.

"I'll drive," he recalled his colleague saying.

As they approached his father's car he saw the flames. He jumped from the car and started to run toward the burning vehicle, but U.S. soldiers blocked his way.

"Go," he recalled them ordering. But he said he couldn't move. He dropped to the ground and wept as his father burned inside the vehicle.

"Why did they kill him like this?" Mohammed Hafeth said Sunday in a phone interview. "We demand that they send those soldiers to an Iraqi and American court."

Mahdi was the father of six, including Hafeth. Hafeth said he now shoulders the financial responsibility for his family on his approximately $100-a-month salary.

"I was shocked that my father was killed by the Americans," he said. "Supposedly we move in a secured area ... we used to wave at them and they waved at us."

Hafeth said he didn't accept the compensation offered by the U.S. military. They offered $10,000, he said, and that wasn't enough for his father's car let alone his father's life.

"My father was a peaceful man," he said. "He never did anything wrong. Everybody knew his good reputation and everybody liked him."

McClatchy Special Correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.

© McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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