The first thing they heard was the crash from the Humvee pushing through the metal courtyard gate. Then two shots were fired into the tile at the entryway before a team of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi military guards burst into the house where Sajid Kadhim was sleeping in the front room with his wife and five children, his family recalled.
The soldiers rounded up other relatives scattered about the house and herded the women and children into a room with a colorful mural depicting a popular Iraqi play called "The Battle of Tuf." Sajid, a moderately well-known Baghdad actor, had played the role of the murdered brother of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, in that play days earlier.
The power was out in Kamiliya, a suburb of Baghdad, in the early morning hours of May 17, when the soldiers came, the family said. So in the pitch black, they listened carefully. They heard the soldiers drag Sajid into the room where his mother slept. "Oh, you coward," they heard Sajid yell. Then there were shots.
The soldiers left, taking with them a hooded man they said was Sajid. But the family found the actor's body stuffed under some mats behind a refrigerator. He was dead. The U.S. military confirmed Friday that an American soldier had shot him.
When Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, the family would have held the funeral, buried the dead and moved on with life. But Qasim Kadhim, Sajid's brother, said the Americans who toppled Hussein promised democracy and justice in a new Iraq. So he hired a lawyer, presented the case to a local neighborhood council that the U.S.-led occupation authority set up after the war and demanded that the military investigate. When days turned into weeks and he started to feel as if no one was listening, he went to the news media.
More than anything, Qasim wants to make sense of what this new justice was supposed to look like, he said in an interview. "All the criminals of the first regime were arrested," he said. "They didn't kill any of them. What happened to my brother was a crime. This was an execution of a civilian in his house.
"But who was the judge? Who defended the suspect? Where is the democracy? Where is the freedom that a person can be killed without a court, without an investigation?"
In a statement issued Friday that did not name Sajid Kadhim but that a military spokesman said referred to his case, the U.S. military said an informant led them to Sajid with information that he "bragged to his neighbors about murdering a 1st Cavalry soldier at a checkpoint."
"During the raid, the Iraqi attempted to grab the weapon of a U.S. soldier, who shot and killed him," the statement said. "Until the investigation is complete, it would be inappropriate to comment further."
As an occupying army, U.S. military personnel stationed in Iraq have had immunity from Iraqi law since U.S.-led forces took over the country in April of last year.
Family members, neighbors and fellow actors said Sajid was a peaceful, law-abiding man who supported the U.S. presence in Iraq. They said he was a religious moderate and a member of a local security league that spoke out against the violence that has gripped this country in recent months.
Qasim said when he first went to the U.S. military to find out what had happened to his brother, a captain apologized and told him the killing was an accident. The captain asked Qasim to return with letters of support vouching for his brother, Qasim said.
Qasim got letters from the Iraqi Theater Union, from local government leaders and from sheiks. "Sajid was one of the notable figures of the Kamiliya neighborhood," said a letter from the National Front of the Iraqi Tribes. "He used to stick to law and order. He used to hold several meetings to fight terrorism and chaos, helping people and telling them not to fight the coalition forces." A letter from Abdul Redha Sheik Muhsin Egeili, the chief of the Union of Notable Figures of the Zahraa, Ghadeer and Hussein neighborhoods, called Sajid "the dove of peace."
Qasim said he returned with the letters to Camp Falcon, the U.S. base closest to the neighborhood and the one responsible for security in this part of Baghdad. This time the captain told Qasim that his brother had resisted arrest, he said.
The official report from the morgue said Sajid was shot five times, once in the leg, once in the throat, once in the armpit and twice in the chest.
In the room where Sajid died, his brothers Haider and Jawad showed the holes in the wall and floor where the bullets struck after passing through Sajid's body.
The electricity was out again, and the soft light from a broken window created shadows on the walls as the brothers reenacted the scene to show how they had been placed.
They had been tied up in the kitchen across a dim hallway, forced to kneel on the tile, their foreheads pressed against the cold cement wall. They were there when they heard the shots that killed their brother, Haider and Jawad said.
Haider said that when he heard the shots, he asked if his brother had been killed. He said a soldier told them they were just checking the gun that Haider had brought to them, the Kalashnikov assault rifle that Sajid kept upstairs to protect his family. Haider said the soldier then struck him in the head with the butt of his gun, leaving a wound that had to be stitched.
In a video of Sajid's funeral procession on May 20, Haider can be seen in front, striking his head and his hands in a gesture of mourning. A blood-spotted bandage around his head covers the wound that was visible as a scar last week.
Sajid's coffin, borrowed from a local mosque, is shown draped in the Iraqi flag, the sign of a martyr.
U.S. soldiers had been to this neighborhood before, the family and neighbors said, but there had been few clashes between residents and the troops. "It was very quiet," said Nasr Kadhim, another of Sajid's brothers, who lives next door. "When they used to come, they used to knock on the door, and they would take the family outside, search the house and then leave."
One of the things that bothers Qasim the most, he said, is the way in which his brother died, killed at home with his wife and children in the next room.
"Saddam was a tyrant, but he did not commit such an inhumane crime," Qasim said. "This happened in the quietness of night, which goes against our values and the religious values of Moses and Jesus and Muhammad."
Even if the Americans believed that his brother was guilty, he did not deserve to die without having a chance to defend himself, Qasim said. This is the irony of the new justice that he cannot comprehend.
"This crime happened after Abu Ghraib and after the apology of President Bush," Qasim said, referring to the scandal in which U.S. soldiers were accused of abusing Iraqi detainees in their custody. "We wish for the American press to publish the truth, for the American society to see this."
Sajid's eldest son, Ali, 12, stood by his uncle's side as he talked. The women of the household sat on rugs around the perimeter of the room, fanning themselves with pieces of cardboard. Sajid's widow, completely covered in black, including her face and hands, tried to comfort her youngest child, 1-year-old Abbas.
"He was the source of our living," Ali said of his father. "Why did they do that? Even Saddam didn't kill a person in front of his children."
Ali said he used to like the U.S. soldiers, that he felt safer when they were around.
"Now I see them, I feel that they're going to kill me," he said.
Special correspondent Bassam Sabti contributed to this report.