Farah Fadhil was only 18 when she was killed. An American soldier threw a grenade through the window of her apartment. Her death, early last Monday, was slow and agonising. Her legs had been shredded, her hands burnt and punctured by splinters of metal, suggesting that the bright high-school student had covered her face to shield it from the explosion.
She had been walking to the window to try to calm an escalating situation; to use her smattering of English to plead with the soldiers who were spraying her apartment building with bullets.
But then a grenade was thrown and Farah died. So did Marwan Hassan who, according to neighbours, was caught in the crossfire as he went looking for his brother when the shooting began.
What is perhaps most shocking about their deaths is that the coalition troops who killed them did not even bother to record details of the raid with the coalition military press office. The killings were that unremarkable. What happened in Mahmudiya last week should not be forgotten, for the story of this raid is also the story of the dark side of the US-led occupation of Iraq, of the violent and sometimes lethal raids carried out apparently beyond any accountability.
For while the media are encouraged to count each US death, the Iraqi civilians who have died at American hands since the fall of Saddam’s regime have been as uncounted as their names have been unacknowledged.
Mahmudiya is typical of the satellite towns that ring Baghdad, and the apartment block where Farah died was typical of the blocks to be found there – five storeys or so high, set among dusty paths lined with palms and stunted trees. In Saddam’s time, the people who lived here were reasonably well-off – junior technicians for the nearby factories run by the Ministry of Military Industrialisation. These are not the poorest, but they are by no stretch of the imagination well-off.
When the Americans arrived, say neighbours, the residents of this cluster of blocks liked the young GIs. They say there were no problems and that their children played with the troops, while residents would give them food as the patrols passed by.
But all that came to a sudden bloody end at 12.30am last Monday, when soldiers arrived outside the apartment block where Farah and her family lived. What happened in a few minutes, and in the chaos of the hours that followed, is written across its walls. The bullet marks that pock the walls are spread in arcs right across the front of the apartment house, so widely spaced in places that the only conclusion you can draw is that a line of men stood here and sprayed the building wildly.
I stood inside and looked to where the men must have been standing, towards the apartment houses the other way. I could not find impacts on the concrete paths or on the facing walls that would suggest that there was a two-way firefight here. Whatever happened here was one-sided, a wall of fire unleashed at a building packed with sleeping families. Further examination shows powder burns where door locks had been shot off and splintered wood where the doors had been kicked in. All the evidence was that this was a raid that – like so many before it – went horribly wrong.
This is what the residents, and local police, told us had happened. Inside the apartment with Farah were her mother and a brother, Haroon, 13. As the soldiers started smashing doors, they began to kick in Farah’s door with no warning. Panicking, and thinking that thieves were breaking into the apartment, Haroon grabbed a gun owned by his father and fired some shots to scare them off. The soldiers outside responded by shooting up the building and throwing grenades into Farah’s apartment.
The randomness of that firing is revealed by a visit to the apartments. Windows are drilled with bullet holes; ceilings in kitchens and bedrooms and living areas are scarred where the rounds smashed in. Hodhbain Tohma was on the roof, fiddling with his new satellite dish to make it work, when the soldiers came. ‘I heard the shooting first, then an explosion. Then I heard women screaming. I looked over the roof and saw a line of soldiers on the path firing weapons wildly towards the building as a helicopter arrived above us. The shooting all seemed to me to be on one side.’
Abdul Ali Hussein was in the apartment next door to Farah’s when the shooting began. ‘I was asleep when we heard the shooting, and then an explosion blew open my door and filled my apartment with smoke. I grabbed my family and took them to another room and covered them with my body.
‘I went to see if anyone needed my help next door. I went into three rooms, saw Farah lying in the kitchen near the window. She was injured and burnt, but still alive. I ran to get cotton wrapping and bandages to try and treat her. We didn’t have enough and so tore up a head-cloth to try and stop the bleeding. The soldier shouted at me: “Where are the fedayeen ?” They told me to leave her because she was dead.’
As we were talking, a weeping man in a head-cloth arrived – Qasam Hassan, the brother of the second fatality, Marwan. Qasam told us how Marwan died. ‘When I heard the heavy shooting, I was in another apartment building visiting friends. My brother was worried, so he went out to look for me. He was not carrying any arms. He could not find me, and as he came back to the building the Americans shot him. He ran and fell behind the building and died. Among all of them they only had one translator. How could people know what was going on?’
What is most curious about this story is that, when I called the US military press office in Baghdad, it said it could find no record of the raid or of the deaths. It is curious because the police in Mahmudiya have told us how US military policemen delivered the bodies to their station the next morning; how the local commander had expressed his commiserations; how the same Iraqi police had complained that the new troops from the 82nd Airborne Division, who arrived fresh from the US last month, had apparently reversed the policy of the previous US unit in the town to take local police on raids.
It became less puzzling when I spoke to Nada Doumani, spokeswoman for the International Committee for the Red Cross, who confirmed what she has said before – that despite repeated requests from the Red Cross, it can neither get information nor figures on civilian deaths during raids.
What happened at Mahmudiya would be disturbing enough if it was unique, but it is not. It is part of a pattern that points not to a deliberate policy but perhaps to something equally worrying, an institutional lack of care among many in the US military for whether civilians are killed in their operations. It is not enough to say, as some defenders of the US military in Iraq do, that its soldiers are tired, frightened and under pressure from the simmering guerrilla attacks directed against them. For it is the impression that the US military gives of not caring about those innocent Iraqis that they kill that is stoking resentment.
Iraqis have been killed at vehicle checkpoints and killed in their homes in night-time raids. Policemen have been shot down doing what US forces have asked them to do, trying to keep the peace. Indeed, the allegations that US soldiers are too ‘trigger happy’ even led to complaints, in mid-August from Ibrahim al-Jaffri – then holding the rotating presidency of the Iraqi provisional government – urging US troops to exercise more care before firing.
‘All we want are answers,’ said Qassam Hassan. ‘All we are asking for is justice.’