By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 27, 2007
BAGHDAD, Dec. 26 -- Two Iraqi men killed by American soldiers north of Baghdad on Tuesday, including a member of a U.S.-backed security force, were shot after one of them fired on the soldiers and the other then attempted to pick up a weapon, according to an account of the incident provided by U.S. military officials on Wednesday.
Military officials also said the soldiers, after shooting the men, placed their hands in plastic cuffs to prevent them from setting off explosives in a possible suicide attack.
The killings have angered many residents of Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province, and threatened to sour relations between U.S. soldiers and the Sunni force of volunteers they have worked with to combat the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The shooting took place in the al-Mustafa district of western Baqubah as American soldiers were on a mission searching for a man involved in suicide bombings. According to the U.S. military's version of events, at about 3 a.m. the patrol spotted a man, later identified as Uday Hassam Mohammed, in civilian clothes and carrying an AK-47 assault rifle, and shouted at him to drop the weapon. When he did not, and then fired several shots at the Americans, the soldiers returned fire, striking him in the face, said Maj. Mike Garcia, a U.S. military spokesman in Diyala province.
Another man, later identified as Hadi Jasim Rasheed, attempted to pick up Mohammed's weapon. The soldiers deemed him a threat and shot him, Garcia said.
Mohammed was a member of the U.S.-backed local volunteer security force, one of more than 70,000 people across the country now working with the U.S. military in the fight against insurgents. But the U.S. military said that at the time of the shooting, he was not wearing his orange reflective vest or belt identifying himself as such, but rather carrying them in a pouch.
A photo taken by a Washington Post special correspondent, after the American soldiers had left the scene, shows Mohammed on the ground with the vest across his chest. Garcia said that it appeared to have been placed there and that the vest was lying next to the body when the American soldiers left. Both slain men had been bound in plastic handcuffs.
Iraqis who gathered at the scene of the shootings used the vest and the handcuffs as evidence that the killings were unjustified and alleged that the men were first captured and then shot. During a funeral procession later in the day, people carried banners denouncing the U.S. military and decrying what they called the "criminal" killings. A suicide bomber detonated his charge near the procession, killing at least four people.
Garcia called the allegations that the U.S. soldiers executed the men "preposterous at best." When the soldiers first approached the men, they found that Rasheed was breathing, so the squad leader ordered his unit to put cuffs on both men before rendering aid, so they could not detonate any explosives, Garcia said. Rasheed died soon afterward, and when the soldiers turned over Mohammed, they found that he was also dead, Garcia said.
Lt. Col. Ricardo Love, a battalion commander, said in a statement that there had been four suicide attacks in his area of operations in west Baqubah in the past few weeks, and suggested that the shootings Tuesday had to be put into that context.
"One of my squad leaders made a decision based on the credible threat that one of these guys could be wearing a suicide device, and I support that," Love said.
Muntasir Shadhan al-Khilani, 29, who identified himself as a member of the volunteer force, said he was on his way to deliver tea to Mohammed not long before the shooting. He said he saw Mohammed handcuffed, on his knees, surrounded by American soldiers.
"I got scared and ran back to the base and told our commander," Khilani said. "During that time, we heard shooting."
"The Americans assassinated them both," he said.
Garcia said the man was mistaken, possibly because of the darkness. Garcia said his fear is that the allegations against the American soldiers have "spread like wildfire" through Baqubah. "We're trying to dispel that misinformation," he said.
In a separate development on Wednesday, the Iraqi cabinet approved draft legislation to establish an amnesty program for certain prisoners held in Iraqi custody, according to Iraqi officials. The program's details were not specified, but Iraqi officials said some prisoners would be excluded, such as those who committed acts of terrorism, corruption or other crimes outlined in the constitution.
"The prime minister wants to open a new page with all Iraqi people including those who committed some mistakes here or there, in order to give them an opportunity to begin a new life," said Sadiq al-Rikabi, an adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "We look forward to a quick implementation for that amnesty."
The draft proposal still must be presented to a bitterly divided parliament for ratification. Several pieces of legislation, including Iraq's proposed oil law, have been approved by the cabinet only to stall out in the legislature.
Also Wednesday, two U.S. soldiers were shot to death during operations in Nineveh province. Three other soldiers were wounded and evacuated to a U.S. military hospital.
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri, Dalya Hassan and Zaid Sabah in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.