By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 5, 2006
BAGHDAD, June 4 -- All parties to the case of Hashim Ibrahim Awad al-Zobaie agree that he was shot dead by Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment on April 26 in the small central Iraqi village of Hamdaniyah. But there are differing accounts of his death, and they are at the heart of another investigation into the conduct of American forces in Iraq.
Members of the Marine foot patrol under investigation in the case said they came upon Hashim digging a hole for a bomb near his home in the Sunni Arab village of about 30 homes near Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad. The Marines said they killed Hashim in a brief gun battle and that they found an AK-47 assault rifle and a shovel by his side.
According to accounts given by Hashim's neighbors and members of his family, and apparently supported by photographs, the Marines went to Hashim's home, took the 52-year-old disabled Iraqi outside and shot him four times in the face. The assault rifle and shovel next to his body had been planted by the Marines, who had borrowed them from a villager, family members and other residents said.
Hashim's family alleged this weekend that a small group of U.S. servicemen came to them last week and offered the family money to support the Marines' version of the killing.
The slaying of Hashim, known in the village as Hashim the Lame because he had a metal bar surgically inserted into one leg several years ago, is the smaller and less prominent of two incidents being investigated over allegations of wrongful death and possible coverups. The other investigation, stemming from the deaths of 24 Iraqis on Nov. 19 in the western town of Haditha, is not expected to conclude until sometime this summer, Pentagon officials say. But a former Marine lawyer familiar with the case involving Hashim said Sunday that charges are expected and that the case "will move quickly."
"Look for them to be tried before the Haditha suspects," he said of the service members involved, on condition of anonymity.
Attorneys familiar with the case say seven Marines and a Navy corpsman are being investigated and all eight were removed from duty in Iraq and are being held at Camp Pendleton in California. The Associated Press said Friday that the highest-ranking person among the eight was a staff sergeant.
Members of Hashim's family interviewed by a Washington Post special correspondent on Saturday said the disabled man's last hours began about 2 a.m. on April 26, when members of a U.S. Marine foot patrol banged at the door of his one-story, walled compound.
The Marines grabbed Hashim by the front of his cotton robe as soon as he came to the door, pulling him from the house, said one of his sons, Nasir, 26, an arts student in Baghdad.
"Less than an hour later, we heard shooting," Nasir said. The family was too afraid of the U.S. forces to immediately investigate, Nasir said.
At daylight, the family found a wide hole in the dirt road about 500 yards from their home, wet with bloodstains and littered with discarded plastic gloves.
Going in search of Hashim, family members were told that Marines had brought his body to a local police station, Nasir said. The family eventually recovered their father's corpse from a hospital at Abu Ghraib, Nasir said.
Hashim's neighbor, Farhan Ahmed Hussein, said the Marines had stopped at his house first that night, before going to Hashim's.
Hussein said the Marines took a shovel and an AK-47 from his house. Iraqi and U.S. military forces allow each Iraqi household to keep one weapon for protection.
After Hashim's killing, Hussein collected his shovel and the rifle from Iraqi police. "They asked me several questions to be sure whose weapon it was," Hussein said. "Then they gave me the rifle."
The Post obtained a copy of an apparent statement by the Marines on the killing, written in English and given to Iraqi authorities at Hamdaniyah. The Post also obtained a copy of a statement in Arabic given to Iraqi authorities in the area and signed "The Marines" and a leaflet handed out in the area by the Marines immediately after the killing that described Hashim as an insurgent who had been shot after he fired on the foot patrol.
After the U.S. military investigating team visited Hamdaniyah, residents said Saturday, American forces in the area began taking back the leaflets from residents and destroying them.
The Post also obtained photographs of a dead man, identified by the family and Iraqi authorities as Hashim, wrapped in plastic sheeting in a wooden casket. What appeared to be at least four bullet holes could be seen in the photo -- two in one cheek, one in the chin and one in the lip.
Exit wounds from the shots had distorted the head, which was lying in a pool of blood caught by the plastic sheeting.
The statement on the killing in English, written on a sheet of notebook paper, gave this account: "On 60425 at aprox 0300 we spotted a man digging on the side of the road from our ambush site. I made the call and engaged. He was pronounced dead at the scene with only a shovel and AK-47."
The statement was signed Lawrence G. Hutchins and noted that he was a sergeant. A staff sergeant named Bowen signed as a witness; his first name was not legible.
The statement in Arabic, also on notebook paper, said the body brought to police by the Marines was that of a man spotted by coalition forces "digging a place for the [explosive] charge and with him was his weapon, a rifle with full clip, plus a shovel."
The leaflet distributed after the killing called Hashim "a saboteur" and said Marines had found him at about 11 p.m. on April 26 digging a hole in the road to place a bomb. "The Marines fired at him and he returned fire from the AK-47 he had, which forced the Marines to fire back and kill him," it said.
"The Iraqi forces and the Marines have warned before that planting bombs on the roadsides is considered an aggressive action and they will use deadly force to stop it."
Family members insist Hashim was not an insurgent and say they do not know why he was killed, although it appeared clear that tensions over the roadside bombs that cause most American fatalities in Iraq were involved.
Local police, who are Shiite Muslims although the area is Sunni, also said the small, crippled man with the gray and brown stubble was not known to have connections to the insurgency.
An American investigating team -- a mix of uniformed troops and civilians -- came to Hamdaniyah on Wednesday, according to Saadoun Ibrahim, Hashim's brother. Ibrahim showed them where his brother's grave was and agreed to allow Americans to exhume the body when they return, he said Saturday.
"One of them . . . said, 'We are an investigation team, and we want to show the truth, and compensate his family if he's proved innocent,' " Ibrahim said. "I agreed."
A different group of American troops arrived at the house the next day, at about 9 a.m. and talked to Ibrahim, 60, in the presence of his wife, 13-year-old son and other children, he said. One man identified himself through the interpreter as a sergeant, Ibrahim said.
The American, who Ibrahim said appeared to be in charge of the group, first asked if the investigating team had spoken to him yet. He responded that they had.
According to Ibrahim, the American said, "We are ready to compensate you with the money you want, on one condition, which is when the investigation committee comes back, you tell them that your brother worked with the insurgents and had connections with the insurgents, and that he used to go out at night to places you don't know."
The American did not specify an amount, Ibrahim said, saying only that it would be "more than the American military will give you" in standard compensation for killings that commanders later deem to be wrongful.
Ibrahim said he refused. "I told them I will tell them what I know," he said. "And all the money in the world wouldn't compensate for the loss of a brother and the loss to the 13 members of his family."
The American then consulted briefly with another American service member with him and left, Ibrahim said.
Ibrahim said he did not know the men's names or branch of service. Iraqi civilians commonly have difficulty distinguishing the uniforms of different American military branches.
The family's account could not be independently confirmed.
The Post outlined the family's allegations regarding an offer of payment to U.S. military spokesmen in Baghdad and at Camp Pendleton on Saturday and Sunday.
Lt. Lawton King, a spokesman with the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, said in an e-mail Sunday that military officials had visited the family several times as part of the investigation into the killing.
"We are unaware of suggestions of inappropriate conduct of the nature described by your reporter; however we will inquire as part of the overall investigation," King wrote.
U.S. forces announced their investigation of the Hamdaniyah killing on May 25, saying local Iraqi leaders had raised questions about the case at a previously scheduled meeting on May 1. The first U.S. military statement on the case mistakenly identified the site of the killing as Hamandiyah, another village nearby.
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks in Washington contributed to this report.