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A Clan Scourged by Death

A tribal elder's tale is blunt and brutal: In less than a week, two acts of violence in Iraq claimed his son and six other relatives.

June 20, 2005|Jeffrey Fleishman and Raheem Salman | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — It seems these violent days need more prayers than hours can hold, but the old man prays anyway, raising his hands and closing his eyes, whispering verse as the tribal boys watch from the dusty courtyard.

They know what Mohammed Mousa Tahir prays about. They have heard the low moan of his voice, like wind through a field. Tahir says U.S. troops shot his son in a car on an overpass. He buried the boy, and then, a few days later, word came through the littered streets of his neighborhood: Six nephews and cousins had been slain and mutilated and left alongside a road by unknown attackers.

"The Americans killed my son, but if they come to my house, I will tell them: 'Peace be upon you,' " said Tahir, a Shiite tribal elder, basing his account on unconfirmed reports. "I only want the Americans to help my society and stop this war. I must be patient. I don't know exactly what happened to my son. I just know I waited for him to return home, but he did not come."

Bloodshed in Iraq is both calculated and indiscriminate. The unluckiest are caught in explosions and insurgent ambushes. Others, like Tahir's cousins and nephews, are killed over religious and tribal loyalties. And then there are the ones like his son, Haithem, a 25-year-old Baghdad University student heading east on a highway toward a military convoy in a jittery city, the kind of place where the hands of suicide bombers are found duct-taped to steering wheels.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 22, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 83 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraqi family -- A photo caption that ran in some copies of Monday's Section A with an article about an Iraqi clan that lost family members to the ongoing violence showed six members of the clan and said they had been killed on their way to bury a relative, Haithem Tahir. The relative whose remains they were escorting was Jabber Tahir. As the accompanying story said, Jabber Tahir died of natural causes, unlike Haithem Tahir, who was shot dead on a Baghdad highway.

In the space of six days in May, the Tahir family became another casualty of the violence that has killed more than 1,000 Iraqis in recent weeks. The country has fallen into a grisly rhythm where a trip to the market or the mosque can end in a burst of fire.

The Tahirs belong to the Bu Mohammed tribe and live in the slum of Sadr City in northeast Baghdad. Tahir's brother, Sheik Faisel Khareem, is the neighborhood's tribal leader. A middle-aged man with a gray-black beard and silver-rimmed glasses, he mediates disputes between families and has more than once been called into negotiations with American forces.

U.S. troops don't like to linger here; Sadr City can be a labyrinth of murmured prayers and meanness. May 3 was like most days: horse-drawn wagons clattered past, trash whirled, sheep fought the butcher's knife and boys with bent saws and wet feet sold block ice on the corners. Haithem Tahir, an Arabic language major, was in a friend's Mercedes heading toward an overpass on Mohammed al Qasim highway, a dirty ribbon slicing through Baghdad.

Haithem and the driver, Wisam Abdul-Jalil Sadoon, a 27-year-old father of four, were on a midday shopping trip to buy Haithem clothes for his upcoming wedding, family members said. Shortly before 3 p.m. the car skimmed past the Bab al Sheik police station about two miles from the young men's neighborhood. Tahir, informed by bystanders at the scene, told police the car had slowed or stopped near an on-ramp when an American convoy opened fire.

The Army's 3rd Infantry Division, which patrols Baghdad, said it had no report of the shooting. The highway is also frequented by well-armed SUVs driven by loosely regulated private security contractors.

Two men who claimed to have witnessed the incident said gunshots rang out from an American patrol that had passed Haithem's car. The Mercedes swerved, went through a guardrail, plummeted 20 feet and landed on its roof below the overpass on a street of scrap dealers and mechanics' shops. One witness was Abdul Amir, a welding supervisor.

"I was standing [about 200 feet] from the place where the car crashed," Amir said. "I heard two bullets, and from the sound I recognized that they were coming from an American machine gun. I looked at the highway and I saw a white GMC Suburban with tinted windows and three Humvees. The soldier behind the machine gun shot two bullets and then a spray of five or six bullets.... The Americans did not stop."

By early evening, Haithem had not come home and the family was worried. Tahir's second son called Haithem's cellphone. A doctor answered. He told the family to hurry. By the time they arrived, Haithem was dead. Tahir was handed a death certificate and an English exam that had been found in the car. Sadoon survived but still slides in and out of consciousness.

Dr. Qussai Hussein performed the autopsy on Haithem.

"There were three bullet wounds, two to the head each with an entrance of [three-fifths of an inch] and an exit of [four-fifths of an inch]. There was another wound to the left ankle with an entrance of [four-fifths of an inch] and an exit of [1.2 inches]," he said. "Unfortunately, no bullets were found and we cannot determine the source of the bullets."

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