FALLUJAH, Iraq --
It was a fateful turn in the road. Traveling home one night from a
local farm -- where the al-Jumaidy family had bought live chickens for their
store in town -- the driver turned the pickup truck on to the highway to
Fallujah, which has been the flashpoint for anti-American attacks for months.
Fifteen minutes later, the driver and four passengers lay dead in the
vehicle, their bullet-riddled bodies battered by a volley of heavy fire from
an American tank, which was part of a mobile checkpoint set up on the dark
Among the dead was 10-year-old Khalid al-Jumaidy -- his sweatpants,
with the word "Italy," soaked in blood -- as well as his father and two
young cousins, ages 18 and 21.
Those are about the only details that are not in dispute. What occurred
during those chaotic 15 minutes late on Nov. 11 depends on whom one asks --
American soldiers or Iraqi residents.
Their starkly different versions of how Iraqis are killed by American
soldiers is an increasingly familiar feature in the conflict, where neither
side speaks the other's language and the truth is often lost in the confusion,
leaving rage and frustration on both sides.
Jassim Kalaf al-Jumaidy mourns his two sons, killed by U.S. forces Nov. 11 during a nighttime trip to buy chickens for their store.
"Sometimes I think some of the attacks against American soldiers are not
resistance against the occupation," says Shata Ali al-Qurashi, 34, a Baghdad
attorney who represents several claimants against U.S. forces, some for
wrongful death. "I think they are revenge by people who have claims against
In the November incident, U.S. military officials say soldiers from the
Army's 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry
Regiment fired shots after coming under fire "four separate times" from
vehicles traveling on the outskirts of this town, about 65 miles west of
"The soldiers involved returned precisely aimed fire to defeat the
attacking combatants," said Staff Sgt. Rodrick Stallings, a public affairs
officer for the division. The 82nd Airborne is still investigating the
Al-Jumaidy family members say there was no sign telling them to stop
where the American tanks were parked on the highway. They also say American
soldiers did not fire any warning shot -- or at least none they heard.
Family didn't see a warning
"It was totally dark," said Sa'ad Hamud al-Jumaidy, 20, Khalid's first
cousin, who survived the tank's assault by hiding under the backseat of the
truck. Sitting outside the family home, where scores of men gathered in a
large mourning tent to pay their respects, he said he remembered little of
those tumultuous minutes.
"No one shouted to us to slow down," he said. "And when they started to
fire, we screamed: 'Stop! Stop! We're civilians!' No one answered us."
He said he believed American soldiers would surely have known they were
civilians, because "we had 1,500 chickens in boxes on the back of the truck."
The division's official statement, issued Nov. 12, said the soldiers were
fired on by one vehicle -- but did not say whether it was the al-Jumaidys'
truck loaded with chickens.
When the soldiers returned fire, the occupants escaped, according to the
statement, and attempted to get into a second vehicle, also unidentified.
Soldiers opened fire on a third vehicle and killed two occupants when they
arrived on the scene without slowing down. And occupants in a fourth vehicle
fired on U.S. forces, the statement said.
Asked why soldiers did not fire tear gas or rubber bullets before using
live ammunition, Sgt. Stallings said in an e-mail that since Iraqi fighters
used only live ammunition, American soldiers were obliged to respond in kind.
Troops perceived a threat
"Our soldiers are trained in combat," Stallings wrote. "The only way that
a person is going to get shot is by posing a threat to the soldiers. We've had
insurgency, explosives, suicide bombs."
Disputed cases such as the al-Jumaidy's are often judged by military
attorneys, without full court proceedings, or are settled quickly by local
The commanders say they are keenly aware of the possible damage in
relationships that mistaken shootings can cause, but Iraqi lawyers who
represent civilians in disputed cases say they face months of bureaucracy in
pursuit of redress.
"You go through this incredibly long process," said Wa'el Sabeeh al-
Sa'adi, an attorney in south Baghdad. "The military always demands to know the
number of the unit, which Iraqis never know."
Sifting through hospital records and press reports, the Project on
Defense Alternatives in Cambridge, Mass., last month estimated that about 200
Iraqi civilians had been killed by American firepower since May 1, the date
President Bush declared major combat over.
The project's co-director, Carl Conetta, said that the figure excludes
deaths since U.S. forces launched their biggest offensive since April,
Operation Iron Hammer, earlier this month.
Human Rights Watch in New York said the organization's researchers in
Baghdad had found "credible" reports of 94 civilian deaths by American
firepower in the capital alone, between May 1 and Oct. 1.
The report said five of those deaths have been investigated above
division level -- the level that can order courts-martial or grant
substantial compensation. In four of those cases, soldiers were deemed
justified in killing the civilians. The fifth is still under investigation.
Rights groups cite violations
Exacerbating the problem, says Human Rights Watch, is a sense among
soldiers that they will not be punished for using excessive force. "Right now,
soldiers feel they can pull the trigger without coming under review," Joe
Stork, the organization's acting director for the Middle East, said in a
statement last month.
The Coalition Provisional Authority disputed Human Rights Watch's
conclusions, saying the organization failed to understand the military's rules
"Iraq is currently a combat zone, and forces here are engaged in combat
operations against determined enemy forces of significant size," the CPA said
in a statement earlier this month.
It also refuted Stork's charge than U.S. soldiers face little punishment
for illegal or unnecessary force against Iraqi civilians. "We have fully
investigated all credible reports and have taken appropriate action
considering the constitutional protections for the soldiers involved,
applicable military law, and the law of war," said the statement.
Iraqis complain that such "appropriate action" rarely extends to
compensation for an aggrieved party.
Four months after 12-year-old Mohammed al-Kubaisi was mistakenly shot
dead on the family rooftop by a passing American patrol, the family has yet to
receive any compensation, although U.S. military officers apologized.
The al-Kubaisi's tribal sheikh in Baghdad says he is now considering
other forms of redress, which could include killing American soldiers. That
decision would be made by a meeting of sheikhs, who regularly rule on inter-
"If they don't pay our settlement, we'll kill four of them," said Sheikh
Abdul Salam Mohammed al-Kubaisi, sitting in his tribal office in central
Baghdad near the Tigris River. "The Americans are like a tribe for us."
Similarly, the tribal sheikh representing the al-Jumaidy family in
Fallujah says tribal justice seems simpler than applying for U.S. military
An eye for an eye
"Our tribal rule is if one of them kills one of ours, we kill one of
theirs," said Sheikh Abdullah Farhan al-Jumaidy. "The problem is that the
Americans are very powerful. And we don't know exactly which soldier killed
the five people."
Jassim Kalaf al-Jumaidy, 40, whose two sons, Hisham, 18, and Wissam, 21,
were killed by American gunfire, says he is not ready to seek deadly revenge.
The father said he had stayed home that fateful night, venturing out only at 4
a.m. to find his missing family. He discovered the dead bodies still lying in
the family's chicken truck near Fallujah's Jordanian Hospital.
He dropped his head in his hands as he recalled the moment.
"We will be patient and see what happens," he said quietly, sitting
outside his home, surrounded by mourners. "The Americans must pay us money at
"But it is more important that they leave our country."
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle