Fifteen minutes later, the driver and four passengers lay dead in the vehicle, their bodies bullet-riddled by a volley of heavy fire from an American tank, which was part of a mobile checkpoint on the dark road. Among the dead was 10-year-old Khalid al-Jumaidy, whose sweatpants with the word "Italy" on them were soaked with blood. Also killed were his father and two cousins, aged 18 and 21.
Those are about the only details that are not in dispute. What occurred during those chaotic 15 minutes late on Nov. 11 depends on who is asked -- US soldiers or Iraqi residents.
Yet another deadly clash on Sunday, in the central city of Samarra, focused fresh attention on the steady stream of civilian casualties in the Iraq war. Many of the civilians are caught in crossfire between US forces and Iraqi guerrillas in skirmishes occurring in crowded urban areas. US forces in Samarra fought off an ambush by pro-Saddam Hussein fighters, and said they killed 54 insurgents in the bloodiest battle since the fall of Baghdad. A day later, the local hospital was filled with wounded people, many apparently civilians, including a 9-year-old boy.
In Samarra, as in other such firefights, each side gave their accounts of what happened. These starkly different versions of how Iraqis are killed by US soldiers are increasingly familiar in the ongoing conflict, where few on either side speak each other's language but where both sides have access to ample weaponry, say US officials and Iraqis and their lawyers. The details of these deaths are often lost in the confusion. What remains instead is rage and frustration on both sides. Iraqis and US officials say that the sense of being both wronged and misunderstood appears to fuel hostility, even as US commanders are preparing to withdraw from Fallujah and other cities within the next few weeks.
"Sometimes I think some of the attacks against American soldiers are not resistance against the occupation," says Shata ali al-Kuaisi, 34, a Baghdad attorney who represents several claimants against US forces, some for wrongful deaths. "I think they are revenge by people who have claims against the military," she said.
US military officials say soldiers from the Army's 82d Airborne Division's 1st Battalion 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment opened fire only after they had come under fire "four separate times" from vehicles traveling on the outskirts of this town, about 65 miles west of Baghdad.
"The soldiers involved returned precisely aimed fire to defeat the attacking combatants," said Staff Sergeant Rodrick Stallings, a public affairs officer for the division, whose sprawling Fallujah base previously belonged to Iranian rebels attempting to unseat the Tehran government.
Stricken by its huge loss, the al-Jumaidy family says there was no warning sign telling them to stop where the American tanks were parked on the highway. They also say American soldiers did not fire any warning shot -- or at least none they heard. They insist the heavy fire from the tank was unprovoked.
"It was totally dark," said Sa'ad Hamud al-Jumaidy, 20, Khalid's first cousin, who survived the tank's assault by hiding under the back seat of the double-cabin truck. Sitting outside the family home, where scores of men gathered three days after the attack in a large mourning tent to pay their respects, he said he remembered little of those tumultuous minutes.
"No one shouted to us to slow down," he said. "And when they started to fire we screamed: `Stop! Stop! We're civilians!' No one answered us." He said he believed American soldiers would surely have known they were civilians, because "we had 1,500 chickens in boxes on the back of the truck."
The division's official statement, issued on Nov. 12, said the soldiers were fired on by one vehicle -- but did not state whether it was the al-Jumaidys' truck. When the soldiers returned fire, the occupants escaped and attempted to get into a second vehicle, also unidentified. Soldiers opened fire on a third vehicle and killed two occupants, when they arrived on the scene without slowing down. And occupants in a fourth vehicle fired on US forces, the statement said.
In a country where such cases are not tried in criminal courts, the allegations are beyond the professional scrutiny of cross-examination. Cases are judged within the military itself, rather than in civilian courts. They are often settled with cash payments to the victims' families from military officers, who say they are keenly aware of the possible damage to relationships that mistaken shootings can cause.
Iraqi lawyers who agree to represent civilians against the US military say they face months of bureaucracy in pursuit of redress, or an admission of error from commanders.
"You go through this incredibly long process," said Wa'el Sabeeh al-Sa'adi, an attorney in south Baghdad who is one of six lawyers on a list handed to Iraqis by coalition officials, when civilians lodge complaints against the American military. "The military always demands to know the number of the unit, which Iraqis never know," he said. So common has that demand become that some Iraqis, including Sa'adi, believe that "the soldiers take the number of the unit off their uniforms and their vehicles so nobody knows which unit is involved."
Sifting through hospital records and newspaper reports, the Cambridge-based Project on Defense Alternatives last month estimated that about 200 Iraqi civilians had been killed by American firepower since May 1, the date President Bush declared major combat over. The project's co-director, Carl Conetta, said that the figure excludes deaths since US forces launched their biggest offensive since April, Operation Iron Hammer, last month.
A recent report released by Human Rights Watch in New York said the organization's researchers in Baghdad had found "credible" reports of 94 civilian deaths by American firepower in the capital alone, between May 1 and Oct. 1. The report said five of those deaths have been investigated above division level -- the level that can order court martials or grant substantial compensation. In four of those cases, soldiers were deemed justified in killing the civilians. The fifth is still under investigation. The 82d Airborne is investigating the al-Jumaidy deaths.
Exacerbating the issue is a sense among soldiers that they will not be punished for using excessive force, says the report.
Coalition officials rebutted the report last month, saying the organization failed to understand the military's rules of engagement in Iraq. It also disputed the charge that soldiers were not punished for their actions against civilians. "We have fully investigated all credible reports and have taken appropriate action considering the constitutional protections for the soldiers involved, applicable military law, and the law of war," said a statement released on Nov. 4. Asked why soldiers did not fire tear gas or rubber bullets as warnings before using live ammunition, Sergeant Stallings of the 82d Airborne said in an e-mail that since insurgents used live ammunition, American soldiers were obliged to respond in kind.
Even in cases where no enemy fire was present, compensation is difficult to secure. A Globe reporter visited the family of the Mohammed al-Kubaisi family in Baghdad in July after the 12-year-old boy was shot dead on the family's rooftop by a passing American patrol, who had spotted the boy's silhouette in the dark.
Four months later, the family's lawyer has won no compensation, although US military officers visited their home to apologize. With months passing, the al-Kubaisi tribal sheikh in Baghdad says he is now considering other forms of redress, which could include killing American soldiers.
"If they don't pay our settlement we'll kill four of them," said Sheikh Abdul Salam Mohammed al-Kubaisi, sitting in his tribal office in central Baghdad, near the Tigris River. "The Americans are like a tribe for us." Similarly, the tribal sheikh in Fallujah for the al-Jumaidy family says tribal justice seems simpler than applying for US military compensation. "Our tribal rule is if one of them kills one of ours, we kill one of theirs," said Sheikh Abdullah Farhan al-Jumaidy in Fallujah. "The problem is that the Americans are very powerful. And we don't know exactly which soldier killed the five people."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.