Accounts Differ About Attack on Iraqi Village

Demolished Home i i

hide captionA home in the village of Jaisani lies in ruin after the attack.

Video screen shot from an eyewitness
Demolished Home

A home in the village of Jaisani lies in ruin after the attack.

Video screen shot from an eyewitness

Eyewitness Accounts

Read Jaisani villagers' reflections on what happened.

Bodies Wrapped in Cloth i i

hide captionThe bodies of the dead villagers were collected and wrapped in blankets after the attack. By motorcade, the bodies were taken 170 miles south to the Shiite holy city Najaf, where they were buried.

Video screen shot from an eyewitness
Bodies Wrapped in Cloth

The bodies of the dead villagers were collected and wrapped in blankets after the attack. By motorcade, the bodies were taken 170 miles south to the Shiite holy city Najaf, where they were buried.

Video screen shot from an eyewitness
Jaisani map
Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Mourning

hide captionMen mourn after the attack. At the graveyard, said villager Thamer Mahdi Al Bayati, the women were inconsolable.

Video screen shot from an eyewitness

Early in the morning on Oct. 4, American commando helicopters landed next to the village of Jaisani, a remote farming area just north of Baghdad.

They were after a suspected weapons trafficker with ties to Iran. Within an hour, more than two dozen Iraqis inside the village were dead or dying.

A U.S. military press release called the dead "criminals" and "terrorists."

Now several Iraqi eyewitnesses say that the intelligence was false — and that those killed, including three women, were innocent.

Something Ominous in the Dark

That morning, the men at the village checkpoint peered into the pre-dawn darkness. There was something out there — about 30 yards away. It was clear, said one eyewitness, that a ghost was moving.

Thamer Mahdi Al Bayati, a 35-year-old engineer, was at the checkpoint. That morning, he was certain that al-Qaida in Iraq was again attacking his Shiite village.

"The guard shot two rounds at the ghost. The ghost responded by throwing a hand grenade at the checkpoint," Al Bayati says. "Then heavy fire opened up at the checkpoint—machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades."

Men dashed from their houses to the east side of the village, desperate to reinforce the checkpoint. The women and children ran to the west toward what they thought was safe ground.

"The whole area hurried up to help their sons at the checkpoint and to face the expected attack by al-Qaida," Al Bayati says.

An Unlikely Enemy

But it wasn't al-Qaida. It was a half-dozen American soldiers from a secret special-operations unit known as Task Force 17.

Sources familiar with the mission say the task force was formed to go after the so-called "special groups" of the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia group led by radical cleric Moqtada al Sadr.

The Americans say these "special groups" smuggle in weapons from Iran, including components to make explosively formed penetrators — the most lethal kind of roadside bomb, which can pierce through the thickest armor.

On this morning, the Americans were after a suspected special groups commander, working with the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to bring weapons into Baghdad.

Maj. Winfield Danielson, an American military spokesman in Baghdad, describes what happened that morning in Jaisani.

"They responded in self-defense," Danielson says. "The enemy continued firing. They saw what they believed to be some kind anti-aircraft weapon coming out of the building. And the aircraft engaged. In all, they estimate that about 25 criminals were killed and that the buildings were destroyed."

Differing Accounts of the Incident

The American military has not investigated the incident. The No. 2 American officer, Lt. General Ray Odierno, assured reporters this week that every incident involving civilian deaths is investigated.

But Danielson said soldiers on the raid reported there were no civilians in sight.

"Well, the people on the ground didn't report any civilians in the area," Danielson says. "There wasn't any investigation because that's the report we had from people on the ground."

Meanwhile, a member of the Iraqi parliament, Dr. Ali Al Adeeb, has called for an independent investigation.

Another witness, Nasser, 21, who refused to give her last name for fear she would be be targeted and killed, also provided an account of that morning.

"Hearing the shooting outside, my brother, who was sleeping on the roof, took his weapon and went out to join the other fighters, but later he was killed," says Nasser, whose fiance works for the United States in Iraq. "The two houses adjacent to our house were completely demolished. A whole family was killed— the mother, the father. My brother was also killed there too."

Escalating Artillery

With more villagers shooting, the Americans brought in what a press release later called "supporting aircraft."

Those supporting aircraft were two Apache attack helicopters and an AC-130 gunship, one of the most powerful weapons in the American arsenal. It seems like a flying battleship and able to shoot artillery shells the size of fireplace logs.

"When we heard the helicopters firing missiles, we thought that they came to our rescue because we have always maintained good relations with the Americans. We like the Americans," Nasser says. "When we heard the bombing, we never imagined they were attacking us. It was the first time we came under attack by the Americans."

The villagers say they dropped their weapons once they realized there were American helicopters.

Ayad Kadhum Hassan is a 30-year-old college lecturer. He was sleeping a hundred yards away on his roof, and he ran to the scene.

"We checked the place and found dead bodies on the ground, hands and legs were scattered about. That's what we saw," Hassan says. "We started to help the wounded. Later we came to know American airplanes were doing the bombing."

Other villagers tried to find cover from the intense American fire.

"Some of those who got martyred were hiding between a wall made of clay and a palm tree. But the rocket targeted them directly," Hassan says. "We saw body parts."

The Aftermath

Al Bayati says that the wounded were gathered up and taken to a hospital. But the main road was too dangerous because of roadside bombs planted by al-Qaida. They were forced to take a longer route along a winding dirt road.

"We managed to take our wounded to Al Kalis Hospital," Al Bayati says. "Four of them were dead, martyred on the way to the hospital because of the long distance."

One woman died in a Baghdad hospital, bringing the death toll to 27.

That day, the villagers say, they contacted the American military at the nearby base, called Warhorse. Stationed there are soldiers from the Fourth Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

Al Bayati says the officers told him they knew nothing of the raid.

The villagers also sent a letter to the Americans, asking for an apology and compensation for the victims. There has been no response.

"I have not seen that letter. I have not gotten confirmation that that letter exists," Danielson says.

Maj. Danielson says the U.S. military is willing to talk about the mission with those from the village.

"If local leaders want to meet with military officials in the area and discuss it, we're more than happy," Danielson says. "We're here to protect them."

Another American military officer familiar with the mission, called it a "good shoot," based on firm intelligence about a weapons trafficker.

The officer, who asked not to be identified, says there was no wrongdoing — just a tragic situation.

But the villagers strongly deny that any "special group" members were among them. They believe that local Sunnis who were angered that the villagers ousted the Sunni group, Al-Qaida in Iraq, fed the Americans false information about supposed Iranian influence.

"No, there were no Iranians. But because we proved extremely brave in the fighting, the Americans accused us of bringing Iranian fighters to fight by our side," Nasser says. "They claimed we had brought in Iranian weapons. All our fighters came from our village and not from outside."

Mourning the Dead

The bodies of the dead villagers were collected and wrapped in blankets that day. Muslim custom says the dead must be buried before sundown.

They were placed in cars and trucks. And a long motorcade coursed its way south to Najaf, one of Shia Islam's holiest cities and 170 miles away.

The villagers say Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's top Shiite religious leader, donated a burial plot in Najaf when he heard about the attack.

At the graveyard, Al Bayati says that the village women were inconsolable.

"The mothers tore at their clothes, they beat their heads. They were saying: 'God is greater than America,'" Al Bayati says.

Before the incident, the village checkpoint was normally staffed by men 20 and older. Now 12-year-olds and women are ready to stand at the defenses. Al Bayati says that the villagers are ready to die for Jaisani.

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