Five American soldiers have been accused of driving a 19-year-old Iraqi civilian to his death in the Tigris river in one of the main centers of resistance to the occupation.
Zeidun Fadhil and his cousin Marwan Fadhil were allegedly taken to a remote spot on the shore and ordered into the river at gunpoint. When they refused, the soldiers were said to have forced them into the river. Zeidun, who could not swim, drowned in the strong current. His cousin survived to tell the story.
A lawyer for the family of the dead man said US soldiers in Samarratold the family there would be a full investigation, and that a military investigator had interviewed the surviving cousin as a witness. Nazar Fadhil, the dead man's uncle and the family lawyer, said the US military had ordered Zeidun's body to be exhumed for an autopsy. He said the family was awaiting the arrival of a forensic pathologist. He also said that the US army had offered the family compensation, but that they had refused it.
Zeidun - full name Zeidun Mamun Fadhil al-Samarai - had become engaged three weeks before his death, and was saving for his wedding. The Independent was shown a letter from his mother, Widad, to President George Bush and to Tony Blair in which she demands a full inquiry into her son's death.
Samarra, a Sunni city and one of the main centers of Iraqi resistance to the American occupation, is seething with anger over the alleged circumstances of his drowning.
The incident happened on the night of 3 January. Zeidun and Marwan, were returning to their home town of Samarra from Baghdad with goods to sell in the back of their pick-up truck: paving stones, clocks and watches. It was a trip they had made many times.
The road south to Baghdad is dangerous because the large numbers of American convoys traveling on it are targeted by insurgents, but Zeidun needed the money for his forthcoming wedding.
They arrived late, close to curfew, and were stopped by an American patrol. After searching the pickup truck the Americans let the cousins go. But then, according to Marwan, one of the American armored vehicles followed them, stopped them a second time and ordered the cousins into the back of their vehicle. It was then, Marwan said, that the five soldiers drove him and Zeidun to a deserted spot on the banks of the Tigris, near a dam outside Samarra, and ordered them into the river.
There was a powerful current because water was being let out of the dam, and at first the two young men refused.
The soldiers then pointed their guns at the two men, Marwan alleged, and pushed them into the river. Marwan, who can swim, managed to reach a tree trunk. Zeidun did not get that far. His family did not find his body until 12 days later.
When they found the pair's abandoned truck, it and the goods inside had been crushed. The family has photographs of the damage. The truck looked as if it had been driven over by a heavy vehicle, and the family accuses the Americans of deliberately driving an armored vehicle over it, though there are no witnesses to support this.
It is by no means clear that Zeidun Fadhil was intended to die. It is possible he was the victim of an elaborate punishment designed to humiliate the two young men - a punishment that went horribly wrong. Marwan alleged the American soldiers were laughing as they pushed them into the river.
Samarra is part of the so-called "Sunni Triangle", the area including Baghdad which has mounted the strongest Iraqi resistance to the American occupation. US soldiers stationed in Samarra have faced an almost daily onslaught of grenade and roadside bomb attacks.
It appears that the two Fadhil cousins were stopped by the American patrol on the streets soon after curfew began. Zeidun's family insists that he and his cousin arrived in Samarra beforehand, but that they were delayed when their truck was searched by the reconstituted Iraqi army, which is now manning checkpoints for the Americans at the entrances to restive towns such as Samarra.
If the allegations about Zeidun's death are true, it is possible that he and Marwan Fadhil were the victims of American soldiers - worn-down, angry soldiers, who wanted to teach a couple of Iraqis a lesson. If so, it was a lesson that went disastrously wrong.
Zeidun's mother, in her letter to President Bush and Mr Blair, said: "We found his jacket in the river. We shall keep it as a souvenir of the justice my son got from the American soldiers. They came to Iraq under the slogans of democracy and human rights, but in cold blood they wedded my son to death even as he was preparing for his marriage.
"I ask you to open an inquiry. Whatever you do will not bring my son back to life. But maybe this will stop the pain of the other mothers in my country."
The US authorities would not comment on the case yesterday.
© Independent Digital (UK) Ltd 2004