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

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 24, 2009; A01

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.

From somewhere near, Ali heard another voice. The Arabic was spoken in the town's own dialect. It was familiar, that of a neighbor, someone who lived a few houses away. "Oh, you're a taxi driver," the voice said sarcastically to Ali, a former colonel.

It was Sabah. Others noticed him, too, as he ambled through the crowd in American-issued desert camouflage and pointed out suspected insurgents.

The soldiers soon departed the town, but they left behind myriad grievances articulated in cries for vengeance. No one could do anything about the Americans -- not yet, at least. But they could do something about Sabah.

As in other Sunni regions, the sway of tribes had grown in Thuluyah after Hussein's fall, and their authority and the code that underpinned it bore a desert inflection, austere and merciless. The dead 15-year-old had been a member of one tribe, Sabah was from another, and justice had to be done. And the sheiks, empowered in the anarchy of 2003, their words now law, would mete out their notion of it: Either Sabah's family must kill Sabah, or the sheiks would kill the family.

"The sheiks insisted," Sabah's brother said. "Everyone said he must be killed."

A man named Nadhim Khalil, better known as Mullah Nadhim, was the lone figure to speak out on behalf of Sabah's brother and father. Khalil, the son and grandson of clerics and the head of the Caliphs Mosque, the town's largest, was sympathetic to their pleas. No one had proven Sabah was a traitor, the cleric said. Even worse, he suspected, some of the sheiks were trying to cover up their own collaboration with the Americans by making Sabah a scapegoat. He agreed to meet Sabah the next day.

"But the Kalashnikov was faster than I was," Khalil lamented.

The sheiks had said they would wait no longer, and the next morning, two hours before the call to prayer, Sabah's brother and father led Sabah behind the house.

"Seconds before he died, I told him it's not us. It's the town, and we're just one house, alone. We're standing all alone," the brother recalled, his lips quivering.

Five shots later, Sabah was dead.

A curse, Khalil called it, and he denounced it three days later at the mosque.

"His killing opened the door to hell," he recalled. "It didn't only open it, it broke it down, and it couldn't be closed again."

A new, chaotic reality

The residents of Thuluyah take pride in their origins, their blue eyes testament to their ancestors' flight centuries ago from neighboring Syria. When they arrived, the latticework of canals and branches of the Tigris reminded them of ribs -- the origin of Thuluyah's name in Arabic. Their town would be the heart those ribs protected.

Customs were entrenched. No one could ask a favor of a sheik unless they first spent three days at his home. Lunch for a stranger, any stranger, was requisite.

The sheiks inherited the town in 2003. After Hussein's government fell, there was no one else.

But in the months that followed Sabah's death, those same sheiks were overwhelmed by the dynamics the invasion had set in motion. In that, Thuluyah was a microcosm of the region once known as the Sunni Triangle, populated by poor Sunnis of the countryside with whom Hussein had identified. He had courted them as a pillar of his rule. He had guaranteed their interests and provided them patronage.

Now he had fallen. The village was left to fend for itself against ascendant Shiites and an aggressive occupation that brought U.S. military patrols in Humvees through the town almost every day.

"A ball of string, and nobody knew where it started" was how Abdel-Hamid Shweish, one of the town's two preeminent sheiks, described the new reality.

Khalil, the cleric, was blunter. "It was a tsunami," he recalled.

Khalil, though only 25 at the time, had already led the family's mosque for seven years, and his words assumed more importance as Sunnis turned to religion to reinforce their identity. He saw no end to the occupation. Sectarian strife was mounting. Sunnis here needed a militia to defend their interests.

In October 2004, the first cell of al-Qaeda in Iraq came together. The insurgent group was homegrown but led by foreigners. Only nine people from Thuluyah were members. By 2006, when Khalil said he joined, he estimated that al-Qaeda in Iraq had 500 Thuluyah residents among its ranks.

The group wrapped itself in the rhetoric of faith and fatherland: It would defend the people's dignity against the American occupiers and the Shiites doing their bidding. But its real success relied on a tactic borrowed from organized crime: It adhered to no limits in using violence.

In all, more than 200 townspeople were killed as collaborators. Occasionally, their bodies were doused with gasoline and burned. Insurgents talked of shutting down schools, which they denounced as an instrument of occupation. They ordered women married to policemen to divorce their husbands. It didn't matter. By then, most of the police officers had resigned.

Before sunset, U.S. patrols would venture from their base at a former airfield known as Abu Hleij, renamed Forward Operating Base McKenzie, more worried for themselves than the town several miles away.

"After sunset, life stopped," said Jabbouri, the former brigadier in the Iraqi intelligence service.

Not even the sheiks felt safe. One of them, Hussein Ali Saleh, stationed 10 armed men to guard his house. Another was ambushed, bullets tearing through his leg. He still limps. Grenades were thrown twice at the home of Shweish, who recalled that Thuluyah at the time was a "battlefield." The sheiks received pictures of their meetings with Americans in 2003, as both threat and blackmail. Insurgents soon seized the traditional place of the sheiks in arbitrating disputes.

"The sheiks had no power whatsoever," Jabbouri said. "They could do nothing but fear for their lives."

Then, in 2007, a blurry picture began to make the rounds in Thuluyah.

The tide turns in Thuluyah

The men in Thuluyah have come to hold on to pictures like artifacts, as a way to remember what was. They are not family portraits. They are gory, chronicling the trail of blood that al-Qaeda in Iraq charted during its reign in Thuluyah. Men cling to them in macabre fascination, shocked at how grotesque the violence grew.

One showed what was left of a traffic policeman. In September 2007, armed men killed him, then impaled his head on a metal stake they had driven into the ground at the entrance to the Ishaq Bridge. For four days, as sand from the banks of the Tigris hung in the air like a windblown fog, it stayed there. His family was too afraid to take it down.

"It was not humane, it was not religious, it was not resistance," said Safa Saleh, a resident of the town. He shook his head, recalling the image. "It was something so ugly."

Soon after, Saleh's brother Ibrahim was killed. It was Ramadan, Islam's most sacred month. Saleh was riding with his brother and other relatives in their olive Opel when a gray Opel cut them off. Saleh's brother, a police lieutenant, was kidnapped. After three days of negotiations, and a ransom that included a $1,000 Glock 9mm, his brother's body was returned to him. The hands were bound with electric wire. There were burns to the legs and genitals. In a photo, his head is gone, as if animals had torn it from his body, dragging away parts of his spine with it.

It had been three years of jihad, a time when residents often tacitly accepted killings of people whom al-Qaeda in Iraq deemed collaborators and spies, he said. "But now this?"

"Ibrahim was loved, his morals were good, and he was respected. When he was killed, everyone knew they could no longer stand for it," he recalled. "It moved the entire town to act against the armed men. The ugliness created a revolution inside people."

In a matter of weeks, residents stopped providing shelter to militants. They pleaded for police officers to return to their jobs, offering tips on the whereabouts of insurgents. One of the town's sheiks, whose home was attacked with mortar shells and whose nephew was kidnapped and killed, set up a checkpoint with his own armed men, contesting al-Qaeda in Iraq's control of the streets.

Most importantly, Khalil, the cleric, had turned against the insurgents, denouncing them from his mosque.

After years of fighting, Khalil had come to realize that the insurgency was failing to protect the interests of the Sunni community. Even now, he defends al-Qaeda in Iraq's ideology. "A good project," he said. But in practice, it had only managed to turn sentiments against him and his notion of jihad.

Khalil soon emerged as a leader of an American-backed militia of former fighters, helping cripple the group with intelligence that only a convert could provide. A year later, only a dozen or so of al-Qaeda in Iraq's fighters remained in the town, the rest vanquished by police, Khalil's men and the U.S. military, whose soldiers had become a more common sight at the police station and town hall.

"We had entered a dark tunnel with no light at the end," the cleric said. He nodded, contrite but confident. "The choice that we had made didn't bear fruit."

A cleric's rise and fall

By 2008, Khalil was a man about town.

Crowds spilled outside the doors of his family's mosque, enraptured by his thunderous sermons. He led the council that oversaw the hundreds of armed men who were members of the U.S.-backed militia, and he headed a group of local tribal leaders formed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Khalil was anything but bashful in recommending himself as a possible candidate for parliament. The simple mention of his name, Mullah Nadhim, ensured passage through the numerous checkpoints created in the fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Then Iraqi security forces arrested him in May 2009 on charges he criticized as political. The Americans had once embraced Khalil. Now, in the words of a military spokesman, they considered his arrest "a matter for the government of Iraq." In public, Maliki called for Khalil's release. In private, one of Maliki's senior aides said the prime minister had once asked Khalil how many people he had killed while he was a leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Four months would pass before Khalil was freed from a prison in Tikrit.

Celebratory gunfire greeted him as a 12-vehicle convoy of politicians, officers and tribal leaders, sirens blaring, escorted him home on Sept. 18. His enemies, watched by his allies with a wary eye, joined hundreds of others at his manicured villa to pay their respects. But as Thuluyah's fruit trees began losing their leaves, it was clear Khalil no longer commanded the authority he once did.

"Mullah who?" a soldier at a checkpoint asked at the outskirts of town when queried by a reporter.

On a recent Friday, Khalil walked a dirt path that, by his count, he has plied more than a thousand times. In tan sandals and a traditional white robe, a cleric's turban wrapped around his head, he passed ripening pomegranates and bullet holes etched in cement, their edges rounded by time. "Long live Iraq," a faded slogan read on a wall.

Khalil said he no longer had ambitions for parliament. In disgust, he had hid in a drawer a picture of himself with a grinning U.S. soldier. Reluctantly, he seemed to acknowledge his own rise and fall. "If we talk about a strongman these days," he admitted, "there is none."

But at 31, he appeared relaxed, even playful, as he neared the crowded mosque with a retinue of bodyguards, having ended what he described as a mujazafa, a word that can mean adventure or risk.

"Order," he admitted, "has brought an end to the law of the jungle."

Order meant the power of the sheiks, he added, "and that cannot be changed."

Back to normal, sort of

Near Thuluyah's elegant villas, the fuchsia blossoms of the Mirabilis jalapa sometimes grow wild. They are known as the 4 o'clock flower, renowned for their ability to stay underground, lost to any garden for so long that they are eventually forgotten, only to sprout again when conditions change.

These days, one of the plants is blossoming near the house of Shweish, the leading sheik.

"These six years are like a rain cloud that arrives in summer," he said. Shweish spoke slowly, with a quiet sense of authority that comes with the expectation of being obeyed. "It comes, and just as quickly, it's gone."

Saleh, the other preeminent sheik, these days receives guests not with a retinue of 10 guards but with a prepared speech that he gingerly holds in hands furrowed like drought-stricken land.

"Iraqis are brothers from north to the south, from east to west," he declares.

In a less formal moment, the 82-year-old boasted that he and his colleagues have again seized the authority over matters of life and death. "Right now, praise God, we have the first word again in Thuluyah," he said.

Shweish put it more bluntly. "I am where I started," he said.

A footnote to the war, as incidental as it was forgettable, wrecked and remade Thuluyah. Hundreds were killed, farms turned to desert. "Thuluyah's suffering was part of Iraq's suffering," Khalil lamented. "Our reality is its reality." As the Americans leave, the men gathered for lunch at the house of Jabbouri, the former brigadier, and wondered at the recent past.

"We should blame ourselves," said Ali, Jabbouri's cousin, who had heard Sabah's voice during the U.S. raid. "We have to take responsibility for the spark that we ignited."

"Actually it was our fault," Jabbouri added. "We were the problem."

"Why do we blame ourselves?" Ali went on. "Because we clapped our hands in the beginning. We brought these people to us."

Bathed in an afternoon sun, the room turned silent.

The war never had to happen, he meant.

"Everything has its price," he said, "but as a town, we paid a very high price."

The past remains alive

There is a story often recounted in the most traditional stretches of Iraq, where the unforgiving ways of the desert hold sway. In one telling, a Bedouin's father was killed, and a vendetta followed. Forty years had passed, and the Bedouin had yet to exact his revenge.

Why, he was asked.

"Laisa baad," he replied. Not yet.

Near the citrus groves and fields of wheat and vegetables where he killed his son six years ago, before ferrying the corpse to the cemetery a mile away in a pickup truck, Sabah's father recalled the execution with anger.

"What happened has happened," he said. His eyes were steely, his body taut. "I don't want to turn back the pages of the past."

Son Salah intervened, apologizing.

"Forgive my father," he said. "He is very angry at the past."

Salah walked to the dirt road outside. His hands shook, and his body trembled. Unshaven, with the sinewy build of a day laborer, he nervously smoked Kent cigarettes.

"He is my brother," he blurted out, "from my flesh, from my blood."

After Sabah's death, the father and brother, both of whom fired the shots that killed Sabah, fled the town. They would not return for three years.

"This was the injustice of Thuluyah and its sheiks," Salah said.

A crime, he called it.

His brother's grave lies down a road that meanders outside town, past parched irrigation canals, denuded orchards and olive trees coated with dust. The cemetery is washed of color. There is no shade to give respite from the sun. Save for the wind and the sound of distant cars, it is quiet, making the place feel even lonelier.

Only three broken bricks scarred white by bird droppings mark the grave, a rough pile of riverine gravel, mud and straw. Scrub brush, bearing thorns, grows nearby.

"We still haven't put the tombstone," Salah said softly. "We haven't had time."

He stood with his hands clasped tightly behind his back, one balled in a fist.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company