FALLUJAH, Iraq --
Five months after President Bush declared the end of "major combat" in Iraq,
the war may indeed be over for most of the country.
But not for Sheikh Mishkhen al Jumaili. Last month, American troops killed
nine of his relatives, including his son, in the span of just four days.
"They mean to kill as many Iraqis as possible," said al Jumaili, weeping
silently as his younger relatives quietly lowered Beijiya's coffin into the
parched yellow cemetery ground.
The sons of Shaker Mahmud al Fahdawi show a photograph of their father and mother Talha.
Bowing slightly over the red velvet cloth that draped the coffin of his
cousin Beijiya, al Jumaili said a solemn prayer and wiped his eyes. Then he
turned his back and stepped away, unable to watch yet another member of his
extended family vanish under heavy chunks of dry clay.
That morning, al Jumaili, an elderly man clad in a long white dishdasha
robe, had already buried Beijiya's daughter Amal and son-in-law Zamil, and
their 1-year-old son, Heidar.
All were killed the night before, Sept. 26, driving toward Baghdad when
American soldiers opened fire at Beijiya's car after it failed to stop at a
temporary checkpoint that was preceded by no warning signs.
Two days earlier, he had buried two cousins, Abdul Nasir and Abdul Khadi,
apparently caught in the cross fire when U.S. troops shot at suspected
resistance fighters. Their bodies rested a few yards away from Beijiya's grave,
in two identical tombs draped with Iraqi flags and marked with palm fronds.
The day before that, an early morning U.S. aerial attack on a farmhouse in
the village of al Sajr, near Fallujah, killed al Jumaili's sleeping son, Ali,
his nephew, Salem, and Salem's son, Saadi. Locals said American officials
apologized for the attack, saying it was a mistake.
"Lately they killed too many al Jumaili in Fallujah," said al Jumaili. "All
the tribes are suffering. This is murder."
EROSION OF TRUST
A tribal leader himself, al Jumaili sits on the 22-seat City Council in the
town of Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad. He is the kind of influential Iraqi
the U.S. occupation authorities need as an ally if Washington's dreams of a
stable, functioning country are to be realized. Instead, al Jumaili has become
one of America's growing number of enemies, especially in this volatile region
known as the Sunni triangle.
A potential hotbed of resistance from the start -- former dictator Saddam
Hussein enjoyed most of his support in this part of Iraq -- the postwar death
toll among local civilians has eroded whatever trust local people had for the
U.S. troops that overthrew Hussein's regime. Important members of the
community, like al Jumaili, went from being supportive of the U.S.-led
alliance to being openly anti-American.
The killings of civilians, said Brig. Gen. Riyad Abbas al Karbuli,
Fallujah's police chief, "destroyed everything we had built before, the trust
between people and the American force."
American officials say the price being paid by ordinary Iraqis, while
unfortunate, is simply unavoidable collateral damage. They say their forces
are responding to hit-and-run attacks by guerrilla fighters who stage an
average of at least 15 assaults daily on U.S. troops in the Sunni triangle.
"Troops of every level engage in what is called 'proportional response,' "
said Lt. Col. George Krivo, U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. "For example,
it's most likely inappropriate to bring an air raid to an urban area where you
have one sniper. But we always defer to the judgment of the commander on the
American soldiers interviewed for this story said they do not hesitate to
return fire when they are attacked.
"When they're shooting at you, you shoot right back," said Christopher
Hollis, a soldier from the Army's 1st Infantry Division at a temporary
checkpoint under a road bridge in Fallujah.
"We get real uptight real quick," said a sergeant, who refused to give his
name, manning the turret gun of a Bradley armored vehicle at the checkpoint.
But Iraqis living in this region of rich and influential tribes -- largely
spared the repression of Hussein's government because it sought to win their
loyalty -- are outraged by the scale of the U.S. shootings. They say hundreds
of innocents have been killed since Hussein was deposed.
That claim cannot be corroborated because no one is counting. Lt. Kate
Noble, a spokeswoman for alliance troops, said soldiers who are engaged by
guerrillas almost never stop afterward to see if they have accidentally killed
"Wherever something happens we respond. . . . We don't keep an estimate of
civilian casualties," Noble said. "There may be twice as many (as first
appears), or there may be none."
Al Karbuli, the Fallujah police chief, also offers no estimate of victims,
except to say that there are "too many."
'THEY SHOOT 360 DEGREES'
"Many people are not guilty. Bad luck brought them near the Americans when
they start shooting," said al Karbuli, who lost eight of his officers in a
Sept. 12 accident when U.S. soldiers mistakenly opened fire at Iraqi police on
a highway. "Any small accident that happens to the Americans, they shoot 360
degrees around them."
Now, a large black banner with the names of the slain police officers
adorns the gate of the city's main police precinct, and police officers speak
scornfully about the U.S. soldiers with whom they are supposed to cooperate.
"At first, the Americans were very helpful. Now, they are committing a
crime," said al Karbuli.
Stories about what the Iraqis regard as American atrocities spread from
household to household within hours in this tightly woven tribal society,
sowing fear and anger at the occupiers.
A neighbor examines shrapnel scars on the al Jumaili house in the farming village of al Sajr near Fallujah.
In Deshah, a tranquil farming village on the outskirts of Ramadi, about 10
miles west of Fallujah, relatives of Shaker Mahmud al Fahdawi are still coming
to grips with the July incident that killed one family member and left two
According to their accounts, it was 3:30 in the morning when a terrible
blast shook al Fahdawi's low stucco house, jolting his sleeping family out of
their beds. One by one, they ran out of their dark rooms into the walled-in
patio to see what had happened.
Two American helicopters roared overhead, shining blinding spotlights at
the small compound, family members recalled. A giant hole gaped in the green
metal door of the patio where U.S. troops had blown it up. Standing in the
doorway, several American soldiers trained their guns at the disoriented
people inside and opened fire.
One by one, the wounded fell: first Shaker, then his wife, Talha, then his
two daughters, Sheima, 23, and Ala, 9. When Shaker's son, Natik, 24, appeared
in the doorway of his room, the Americans shot him in the stomach, Sheima said.
"My brother Sadik tried to stop them," she recalled. "He said, 'Don't touch
my sisters.' They handcuffed him, put him on the ground and put a foot on his
head. They handcuffed me and two of them trained their guns at my head."
Yasir Juma, one of Shaker's sons, said: "When they searched our house they
found no rocket-propelled grenade launchers, no guns. But we think they
decided we were resistance fighters."
Sheima said the soldiers took her, Natik and her parents to a military base,
then put her and Talha on a helicopter bound for a hospital. There, Talha,
wounded in her chest and legs, died. The coroner's report states the cause of
death as "right heart failure."
No one knows where Shaker and Natik are, but Shaker's brother, Ali, fears
they are dead.
'I FEEL SO MUCH PAIN'
The U.S. military press office in Baghdad says it has no knowledge of the
incident or of the fate of the father and son.
Ali said it was yet another case of mistaken identity.
"An American officer told me that Shaker was an electrical engineer who
makes remote-controlled bombs resistance fighters use to blow up American
soldiers," he said. "I told him that was impossible. Shaker was a farmer who
had finished three classes in elementary school."
The officer apologized, Ali said, but that is cold comfort. Dabbing his
eyes with the backs of his hands, he added, "I feel so much pain. These
foreigners . . . don't respect us.
"I am like a child, I can't do anything to find out about my brother and
his son. If they are dead, they should respect the dead and return them to us."
Carefully, the men passed around the few pictures of Shaker, Natik and
Talha found in the humble farmhouse -- a small photograph of Natik, smiling at
the camera with his friends; a black-and-white portrait of Shaker and Talha
from long ago; a blurry copy of a photograph of Talha's dead face from the
coroner's report, which rested in a pink manila folder.
In the patio, Sheima went through her own memories of her parents and her
brother. Pointing at different parts of the concrete floor, she recalled where
each of them lay when American soldiers shot them, puddles of their blood
glistening black in the eerie shine of helicopter spotlights. Then she broke
down in tears.
"Leysh?" she said, in Arabic. "Why?"
Everyone in the patio went quiet as Sheima cried silently.
Slowly, Ali shook his head, contemplating his feelings toward the American
"It's possible to forgive them if they tell us about our relatives," Ali
His cousin, Hamid Abdullah, interrupted. "It's impossible to forgive them."
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle