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Deadly Mistake Typifies Shaky Line U.S. Walks

In the chaos of battle, Marines killed three civilians the day Baghdad fell. The incident left grief and distrust in its wake.

September 21, 2003|John Daniszewski, Tony Perry and David Zucchino | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — On the day Baghdad fell, one-armed Iraqi war veteran Mohammed Khadim Hussein was buoyant with hope. The country's hated dictator had vanished, and the U.S. bombing was ending. So Khadim Hussein, who had taken refuge in the suburbs, piled a few relatives into his 1982 Toyota Corona to check on his home in the city center.

That same afternoon, Marine Sgt. Miles Johnson and Pfc. Patrick Payne Jr. rode the last truck of a long military convoy arriving in Baghdad after the long push north. They were assigned to protect fellow Marines on what officers warned would be the most dangerous day of the war, as the convoy crawled through the crowded streets of Saddam Hussein's capital. Their M-16s were locked and loaded; the two Marines from Camp Pendleton were eager for action.

The Iraqis came upon the tail end of the U.S. convoy as they left the city center in the early spring twilight. Seconds later, Khadim Hussein and two passengers were dead, shot by Johnson and Payne.

The incident was noted and then largely forgotten in the chaos surrounding the fall of Baghdad on April 9. But it now stands as an omen of what was to come. Despite the U.S.-led occupation, Iraqis and Americans here live largely parallel lives. When they do intersect, misunderstandings, disillusionment, suspicion and an imbalance of power often define their relations -- and frequently result in violence.

Last month, a Marine Corps investigation concluded that there was no basis on which to charge Johnson or Payne. An executive officer said Johnson was "trigger-happy" and "overreacted," but Marine Corps lawyers said the shooting was justified because the Marines' belief that the Iraqis posed a threat was reasonable "given the conditions of war that existed at the moment."

To many Iraqis, Americans seem remote, hostile, unpredictable and utterly ignorant of Iraqis' language and customs. For Khadim Hussein, his 17-year-old son and two other companions, a busy highway they had safely driven just hours before was suddenly blocked by men with guns.

To many Americans, Iraqis are clannish, inscrutable strangers who fail to appreciate the U.S. troops who fought and died to liberate them. Worse, they are potential assassins or human bombs. To the Marines in this case, whose columns had been attacked by snipers and car bombs on the way to Baghdad, Khadim Hussein was a man who foolishly went for a drive in a war zone.

The deaths have devastated Khadim Hussein's extended family and left a legacy of anger and bitterness. A tight knot of Marines struggled with conflicting emotions -- but the troops concluded that they performed a difficult mission exactly the way they were trained to.

Although the U.S. military does not keep track of civilian casualties, a survey of news accounts by the nonprofit group indicates that 6,100 to 7,800 Iraqi civilians been have killed during the U.S. military campaign since March. A Times survey of Baghdad-area hospitals in May estimated that at least 1,700 Iraqi civilians died and more than 8,000 were wounded in the battle for the capital.

More recent deaths include the shooting of a 14-year-old boy at a wedding ceremony Thursday and of five Baghdad residents at an unannounced Army checkpoint in late July.

Erroneous shootings have fanned the anger toward U.S. troops in Iraq. A member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council said last week that most Iraqis were discontented with the U.S.-led forces because they "treat the Iraqi people with violence and contempt."

U.S. casualties also have mounted amid the postwar insurgency. About 300 Americans have been killed and more than 1,200 wounded, according to the latest data. Many of the U.S. casualties since May 1, the day President Bush declared major combat operations over, have been a result of attacks on convoys.

In the case of the three men killed April 9, there are parallel versions of what happened.

Marines who checked the car after the shooting reported that they did not see a fourth Iraqi, who was wounded in the legs and abdomen by flying glass but survived.

A grainy videotape taken by Australian journalists from the last truck of the convoy shows Johnson shouting orders to stop and then firing a warning shot in the direction of an approaching car. A volley of shots is then heard, and the car swerves to the left. The Iraqi, Ziad Monaam Abed Latif, Khadim Hussein's 23-year-old cousin by marriage, said he heard no warning shouts or shots. The first and only thing he remembers is the driver and the others being fatally wounded.

Latif said the passenger in the front seat held a white towel out the window as they drove. Johnson and Payne said the car bore no white towel or flag, and journalists who examined it later did not see one. Latif said the Toyota coasted to a stop against a Marine vehicle after the driver was shot. The Marines said the car swerved toward the vehicle but missed it by inches.

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