2003 U.S. raid in Iraqi town serves as a cautionary tale

Thuluyah, a Sunni town of 50,000 inhabitants along the Tigris River north of Baghdad, bore the consequences of the invasion's confusing aftermath.
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 24, 2009

THULUYAH, IRAQ -- Recitation of the Koran, mournful but consoling, played from a scratchy cassette as the men gathered in the funeral tent for condolences. They sipped bitter Arabic coffee, only enough to leave an aftertaste. As they smoked cigarettes, an American helicopter rumbled overhead, its rotors sounding the familiar drumbeat of war.

The men had arrived on this day in June 2003 to pay their respects to Hashim Mohammed Aani, a chubby 15-year-old who was one of three people killed a day before in a U.S. raid through this lush region on the sweep of the Tigris River.

An omen, a soft-spoken former judge called the shy boy's death. Other mourners called it a tragedy. To the rest of Iraq, it was little more than a statistic, incidental in the killing fields the country would soon be reduced to. The raid itself was a footnote.

This is the story of that footnote, a cautionary tale in the Iraq war. It is the story of the raid's unintended consequences -- a chain of events that began as soon as American troops set foot in Thuluyah. As the U.S. military departs Iraq, those events have brought the town full circle, returning it to where it was when Saddam Hussein fell.

Drawing on dozens of interviews and numerous visits since 2003, some chronicled in The Washington Post, it is the story of a town where wild thorns grow among the unadorned tombstones. It begins with a tall, burly 28-year-old who served as an informer for the Americans on that raid. His name was Sabah Kerbul, and the mourners who gathered the next day blamed him for the deaths.

'Like an earthquake'

Perched on a bend in the Tigris, Thuluyah had escaped the ravages of the U.S.-led invasion that March. A 90-minute drive north of Baghdad, the town was beyond the route of the U.S. military, which was bent on occupying Baghdad. Although Thuluyah's men had filled the ranks of the Baath Party, the army and the intelligence, the town was too small to figure in most maps.

Within weeks, though, it would bear the scars of the invasion's confusing aftermath. Eleven days after Saddam Hussein's regime fell that April, one of the first insurgent attacks occurred at the edge of town, along an irrigation canal that over time was nicknamed the Valley of Death. More followed. By June, in response, the U.S. military had devised Operation Peninsula Strike, dispatching helicopter gunships, armored vehicles and edgy troops in the first attempt to quell an insurgency that would only grow more intense.

They arrived in Thuluyah after midnight.

"It was like an earthquake," recalled Mawlud Awad al-Jabbouri, a tall and stocky resident who had served as a brigadier in Hussein's intelligence service.

The soldiers shouted in English. Most of the residents stared back in frightened incomprehension. Like others, Jabbouri raised a white handkerchief, in a universal sign of surrender. With hundreds of others, he was blindfolded, bound with plastic cuffs and forced to lie on his stomach. Helpless, he listened as his wife and five children cried nearby.

"I was afraid they were going to line us up on the wall and shoot us as revenge," he said. Lying next to him was his cousin, Saad Salah Ali, short and balding.

"What do you do?" an interpreter barked at Ali. "I'm a taxi driver," he replied.

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