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U.S. Military Inquiry Into Deaths of 4 Iraqis Is Inconclusive

American troops are suspected in the machine-gun attack that killed a taxi driver and three passengers, but no culprit has been found.

March 07, 2004|From Times Staff and Wire Services

TIKRIT, Iraq — The U.S. military has closed an investigation into the January killings of four Iraqis whose deaths were blamed on American troops, saying it couldn't find the culprits, the Army said today.

No one claimed responsibility for the Jan. 3 deaths of the Iraqis -- a taxi driver and three passengers, including a woman and a 7-year-old boy -- who were killed by heavy machine-gun fire as their cab traveled near Tikrit. The sole survivor, another passenger, blamed American troops.

The Army did conclude that someone affiliated with the U.S.-led coalition probably shot at the taxi. The bullets appear to have come from a mounted .50-caliber machine gun of the type used by U.S. forces, said Maj. Josslyn Aberle, a spokeswoman for the Tikrit-based 4th Infantry Division, which investigated the incident.

"It's an unsolved case. We could not get enough information to determine if it was a military unit that did it," Aberle said today. She said either the military or a private security firm could have been responsible.

Passenger Ibrahim Alawi said the taxi had just passed four vehicles of a U.S. convoy on a road leading to the main highway through Tikrit when gunfire struck the cab. The fire came from the convoy's lead vehicle, said Alawi, who was wounded.

Aberle said the large volume of traffic that passed through Tikrit made it "almost impossible" for the 4th Infantry to determine who killed the people, but she said no forces from her division were responsible.

Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the division commander, has repeatedly said his troops were not involved. However, Lt. Col. Steve Russell, whose battalion responded to the scene, said he doubted insurgents were responsible because of the caliber of weapons used.

"The incident was a human tragedy, and I felt we had a moral obligation to investigate it," Russell said Saturday. "I am satisfied our forces have done so, but the fact is we have hit a dead end.

"Every human being that commits an immoral act has to live with it, and the person who did this will be haunted by it for the rest of his life," he added.

The taxi shooting inflamed passions in Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland, where resentment of U.S. forces is high. Two weeks after the shootings, Army officials said that a U.S. gunner on a convoy probably was responsible.

"If there was evidence to the contrary, we would be promoting that evidence," one officer familiar with the investigation told the Los Angeles Times.

Had a soldier been found responsible, and the shooting was ruled unjustified, the victims' families could have been entitled to compensation. But now it appears they will receive nothing.

The U.S. has paid more than $2 million in response to more than 10,000 claims for property and personal losses in Iraq. The average payout for a death has been $2,500, the Army has said.

Shortly after the shooting, relatives of the dead said they were more interested in justice than money.

"I would like to ask the Americans: What did my wife and my boy do to deserve this?" Jawad Kadhum said in January. "My wife and son were not terrorists. They were not harming anyone. They were civilians, a mother and her boy."

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