After a monthlong investigation, the U.S. military in Iraq has reversed itself and acknowledged that members of an American Army patrol killed three innocent civilians who were driving to work at the Baghdad Airport. The case raises questions about how such incidents are initially reported by the military.
In a statement late Sunday afternoon, military officials announced that the investigation found that "neither the soldiers nor civilians involved in the incident were at fault." That's a turnaround from the report issued by the military on the day of the killings, which said the victims were "criminals" who had fired at an American convoy.
That initial report, issued on June 25, went on: "The soldiers returned fire, which resulted in the vehicle running off the road and striking a wall. The vehicle then exploded. All three criminals were killed in the incident. A weapon was recovered from the wreckage. Two MND-B [Multi-National Division — Baghdad] convoy vehicle(s) received bullet hole damage from the small arms fire. No soldiers were injured in the attack."
Almost immediately, that report came into question when Iraqi police sources reported that the occupants of the car were a man and two women, which wasn't consistent with the usual profile of attackers in a drive-by shooting targeting American forces.
Iraqi police also raised another puzzling issue — the attack took place inside the security cordon surrounding the Baghdad Airport. Vehicles must be inspected at multiple checkpoints before they're allowed inside, and it's unlikely that civilians could get into the zone with a gun.
The bodies were brought to Baghdad's Yarmouk Hospital, where they were quickly identified as Hafed Abood, a 57-year-old manager at a Baghdad Airport branch bank, and Surur Shadid Ahmed and Maha Adnan Yunis, two women who worked at the bank.
Despite the inconsistencies, Lt. Col. Steven Stover, the spokesman for the Multi-National Division — Baghdad, said repeatedly in the days after the event that the military stood by its account of the shooting.
In an e-mail exchange after the investigation results were announced, Stover called the shootings a "tragic" and "heartbreaking" event. He said the soldiers involved were parked by the side of the road, attending to a mechanical problem with one of their vehicles.
He said the bankers' vehicle approached the convoy from behind "traveling at what appeared to the soldiers to be high rate of speed despite several obstructions in the road."
The military report said the soldiers followed "established escalation of force measures," which typically means they signaled the car to stop with shouts, hand and arm gestures, followed by warning shots. It said "when the vehicle failed to respond to the soldiers' warning measures, it was engaged with small arms fire."
Unconfirmed witness reports from the scene suggested another possibility — that the bankers' vehicle may have swerved to avoid a pothole, making it appear that it was veering toward the convoy.
Stover told the New York Times that nine of the 18 members of the platoon fired at the car. He also said the car did not explode, as stated in the original report, a detail that suggested the occupants were carrying explosives. Instead, he said, fire from the engine compartment spread throughout the car.
Stover told NPR the soldiers "truly believed they were fired upon. Twelve soldiers from the platoon say they saw 'flashes,' and 13 say they heard 'gunfire.'" He pointed out that the entire incident occurred "in the span of 30-45 seconds," and "in a war zone" — where soldiers could be expected to be hyper-alert.
But what about the assertion that a weapon was found in the victims' car, and Stover's own assurance that there was photographic evidence of bullet damage to the convoy's vehicles? The colonel says those reports "we now know were inaccurate."
He said the investigation found no evidence that the patrol was fired upon, although there appeared to be one unexplained "fresh" bullet strike on a vehicle. Military vehicles that have seen action in Iraq commonly have battle scars, including shrapnel pocks from roadside bombs.
None of the military officers interviewed voiced one of their common frustrations: American soldiers are singled out for accidentally shooting civilians in a country where insurgents, militia gunmen and common criminals deliberately kill civilians every day.
Most agree that Americans are, and should be, held to a higher standard.
The initial military report on this accident stirred outrage among the Iraqi public because of its accusatory tone, its references to evidence that appeared to be trumped up, and the fact that the accusations against the victims weren't withdrawn for a full month, until the investigation was complete.
The incident fueled demands from some Iraqi lawmakers that American soldiers should be subject to criminal prosecution in Iraqi courts for attacks on civilians.