|Posted on Wed, Jun. 15, 2005|
Fatal shooting of teacher illustrates why Iraqis fear U.S. convoys
Knight Ridder Newspapers
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Farqad Mohammed Khinaisar was driving to work in her dark green Kia Sephia at 8 a.m. on May 29 when she came up behind three American Humvees that were about to enter a traffic circle in Baghdad's Sadiya neighborhood.
A high school Arabic teacher, she'd left home five minutes earlier, and she was 15 minutes from work. In the American convoy were soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart, Ga. They were out on a ride-around to get to know the community.
The 3rd Infantry had been in the country since February and had lost two soldiers a month earlier to a car bombing in an adjoining neighborhood. There had been three car bombs in three weeks in Sadiya. The prospect of another attack was "at the forefront of everyone's mind," said Lt. Col. David Funk, the battalion commander.
The usual crowd was gathered at the traffic circle - the shepherd and his 20 sheep, the kabob shop owner, the drivers waiting for someone to rent one of their trucks.
Everyone heard a gunshot from the third Humvee. The soldiers at the rear of the convoy thought they saw a suicide bomber, said Funk, and they'd fired a warning shot, then kept firing. The Iraqi men in the circle said they looked up and saw only a frightened woman in a careening car.
No one knows what Khinaisar saw or thought. She was shot once in the head, and she died five days later, on June 3. She spoke only once during that period, when her husband arrived at the hospital. When she heard him speak, she quietly called out his name: Mohsen.
In the car, the soldiers found only a purse and a Quran on the dashboard. They found no evidence that the 57-year-old teacher was a suicide bomber.
It's not clear how often American soldiers, strangers in a strange land where it's virtually impossible to distinguish friend from foe, mistakenly kill Iraqi civilians. U.S. officials say they keep no statistics, and since last year, the Iraqi Ministry of Health has refused to release the ones it keeps.
At the Iraqi Assistance Center, which pays families for damage caused by American forces, the head of the compensation section said the center receives 1,000 requests a month, but most of them are for property damage. The head of the center, Col. Chester Wernicki of the 353rd Civil Affairs Command from Staten Island, N.Y., said he doesn't keep information on how many claims have been filed for deaths.
Many Iraqis say they understand why U.S. forces must be here: to keep the country intact, protect its fragile new government and stop the violence.
But enough civilians have been killed in one-sided encounters with scared American troops that Baghdadis cower whenever Americans are near. Whenever American troops leave their bases, they say, everyone is vulnerable.
"We are living in constant terror because of these convoys," Khinaisar's husband, Mohsen Hameed, said at his wife's funeral.
Others think the shooting of innocent people is a reflection of the Americans' nervousness and their lack of intelligence about the insurgency.
"People are frustrated. So far, neither the government nor the multinational forces have proven that they can handle the security issues, and it is worrying the citizens," said Huda al-Nuami, a political science professor at al-Mustansiriya University. "There is a sense of distrust between the people and the security apparatus."
Funk, who wasn't present when his soldiers shot Khinaisar, defended his troops. Soldiers must decide who's a suicide bomber in a split second, and mistakes "tear us up."
"I truly honestly believe that, in the balance, we do so much good here," Funk said. This shooting "does not define our presence."
One fatal mistake, however, can undo a lot of good work.
Khinaisar's car jumped the curb and came to rest against a utility pole. A crowd quickly gathered. Witnesses said the Americans were standing to one side, talking about what to do. Funk said they were waiting for an ambulance.
One of the truck drivers standing in the circle, Raid Sabri, 38, said he saw Khinaisar's hand and leg move. He told the Americans that if they wouldn't take her to the hospital, he would. They agreed to let him take her, he said.
"We were furious after seeing them not rescue her while she was still alive. To them, killing a human being is nothing," Sabri said. "When an American soldier gets killed, they make a big fuss. Helicopters and ambulances come to rescue, but when an Iraqi gets killed in the street, it means nothing to them."
Funk said the ambulance was en route. Even his bleeding soldiers have had to wait for long periods for help, he said.
Sabri, his boss, Ibrahim Abdullah, 64, and the other men lifted Khinaisar into the back of Sabri's white Datsun pickup. They took her to the closest hospital, Yarmouk, where records show that witnesses brought her in. She was immediately transferred to Al-Kadimiya Hospital, the best place for head injuries, according to those records.
At the scene, U.S. forces found Khinaisar's address book, leading them to Khinaisar's niece, Inas Ahmen Muhammad, 25, who lived in an apartment above her aunt's house.
Muhammad rushed to Al-Kadimiya and found her aunt lying alone in a hallway, blood coming from her head. Khinaisar's hand and leg were still moving, but in Iraq's overburdened hospital system, she was waiting.
"We were begging the doctors to come and do something," Muhammad recalled.
Khinaisar's husband arrived home about noon. The neighbors saw him getting out of a taxi and told him that his wife of 17 years had been in an accident. He headed to the hospital.
"They told me she had a simple car accident," he said. "They did not want to shock me with the news."
But at the hospital, he learned the truth. "`The Americans shot her,' they told me. I don't know why."
Khinaisar's husband and several family members said they waited until 5 p.m., when hospital staff members finally wheeled Khinaisar into an operating room for a four-hour procedure.
After the operation, she didn't speak again. Because there weren't enough nurses, the family stayed at her bedside, cleaning her and changing her bandages. They said they noticed that other families at the hospital brought their own fans and water to care for their loved ones, and they did the same.
Regardless, they said they knew she was dying.
Khinaisar's funeral lasted three days. The family erected a large tent on a neighborhood street, the kind that lets everyone know they're mourning. Khinaisar's husband and the other men wore long white robes in 105-plus-degree heat.
In the house, the women, clad in black gowns, sat on cushions arranged on the floor. At every fifth woman or so, a box of Kleenex rested on the floor.
They said Khinaisar was a kind woman who loved her students and enjoyed visiting her parents in Spain.
They scorned the American forces that killed her. Even a young boy sitting next to his mother tried to describe how the Americans are attacking people.
Khinaisar's husband was distraught. "Why are they roaring down our streets? Why can't they stay on their bases?" he said, moving black prayer beads through his fingers faster and faster.
"They have sophisticated weapons. With one bullet, they can kill someone. But they don't know who is an insurgent? They are making a mockery of the Iraqi people."
Khinaisar's car is at the Sadiya police station, where it will stay until the family picks it up. It has five bullet holes - two in the windshield, one on the roof, two in the hood.
Funk said an investigation of the shooting found that the soldiers gave Khinaisar several warnings - hand and verbal signals - before they fired a warning shot. Once they have to position their gun and fire that shot, "soldiers get anxious," he said.
Funk said the report also found that Khinaisar's car was 15 feet from the Humvees, so close that had she been a suicide bomber, the soldiers likely would have been seriously hurt, he said. The Iraqi men at the traffic circle gave conflicting accounts, putting her as far as 100 feet away.
Some family members speculated that Khinaisar, frightened, may have hit the gas instead of the brake when she heard the warning shot. Indeed, the military said that after the warning shot, she moved faster, not slower.
A police commander at the Sadiya station said the Iraqi police aren't looking into the shooting: "If the Americans are part of the investigation, we don't investigate. We have no authority over the Americans."
Muhanned Methal, Khinaisar's nephew, said the family has no plans to ask for compensation.
"What are we going to do with money?" he said. "We lost the important thing. All she did was go to school."
Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Shatha al Awsy contributed to this report. Youssef reports for the Detroit Free Press.